Is Bioethics Hindering Medical Progress?


By Ruth Macklin, Ph.D.

A recent opinion piece by Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist often referred to as a “public intellectual,” called on bioethicists to “get out of the way” and allow biomedical research to proceed without the red tape and interference that allegedly slow the path to medical breakthroughs.

The trigger for Pinker’s attack on bioethics appears to be the moratorium proposed for CRISPR-Cas9, the technique that enables genomes to be edited. Pinker argues that “a truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as ‘dignity,’ ‘sacredness,’ or ‘social justice.’ Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.”

Pinker’s critique fails for two reasons: First, not all bioethicists speak with one voice. Some are champions of biomedical progress and others are more cautious, critics of the notion that biomedical progress is a goal to pursue relentlessly. Second, although it is true that red tape and bureaucratic requirements can slow the approval and implementation of biomedical research, such requirements are not what bioethicists promote and defend as ethically necessary protections of human subjects.

Scientists Urging Caution
Interestingly, in this case, it was not bioethicists who called for a moratorium on gene editing. It was a group of scientists, led by Jennifer A. Doudna, who, along with other prominent scientists, invented the new gene-editing technique. This is not the first time that scientists, not bioethicists, urged a moratorium on a particular type of research. In 1975, a group of prominent scientists urged a moratorium on research using the newly developed techniques of recombinant DNA. After the scientists developed rules, primarily geared toward —> Read More