Bioethics as a Profession: Expertise and Accountability for the Gene Editing Debate

With my students in the MA in Bioethics & Society at King’s College London we spend one lecture at the beginning of the year discussing who and what the bioethicist is. This is not a matter that can be resolved in a short opinion piece and many contrasting ideas have been put forward, but of one thing I – and others – are pretty sure: bioethics is a profession, borrowing from Max Weber who first said it about science, and bioethicists are professionals.

I especially like to use an article by Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University Ana Iltis in which she says that the bioethicist is a person who is able to look at a complex problem raised by biomedicine and “read and understand contributions from these different disciplines [biology, philosophy, medicine, theology, social sciences, and economic] to synthesize and integrate those data, and then analyze bioethical issue and articulate one’s assessment” (in this article). In addition, bioethicists are building on an extensive bioethical literature, so that they are not “reinventing the wheel” every time. In short:

Bioethics expertise cannot be improvised.

This last point is particularly poignant and has real consequences for how we govern science, as scientists have recently been calling for a moratorium on germ line gene editing technologies.

As I wrote on this blog before, it is, to say the least, a bit disheartening that we seem not to have made any progress in 40 years when it comes to governing science, and that we still refer to Asilomar as the exemplar of best practice for governing science.

Take, for example, the recent news that “US science leaders [are] to tackle the ethics of gene-editing technology.” The National Academy of Science, in —> Read More