Hateful politics infiltrate human genome editing debate in France

By Elliot Hosman

Summary.  A campaign calling for a moratorium on using CRISPR in human embryos was launched by a prominent French organization fighting for narrow understandings of life and family.

A recent campaign calling for a ban on “transgenic” human embryos was launched by one of France’s most prominent organizations fighting for “science”-backed “one-man-one-woman” families, and the exclusion of all other forms.

Stop Baby GMO Campaign
“Stop GMO Baby: Yes to therapeutic progress, no to transgenic embryos” (image via Alliance VITA).

Since March 24, more than 15,500 people in France have signed a Change.org petition started by Alliance VITA declaring (translated from French*):

“I ask my country to engage with all urgency to obtain an international moratorium – that is to say an immediate stop – on the genetic modification of human embryos, especially via the technique CRISPR-cas9.”

*all French materials and quotations presented in English in this post have been translated using Google and my college-level French. Suggested revisions to translations are welcome and will be noted. Alliance VITA offers some materials on its website in English.

In that time, volunteers have canvassed cities around France, handing out brochures explaining the breakthrough CRISPR genome editing technology, and tweeting pictures of their advocacy using Flickr and the hashtags: #StopBébéOGM, #ProtectHumanity, and #CRISPR-Cas9.

Alliance VITA’s opposition to using human gene editing for reproduction is widely shared, including by my organization, the Center for Genetics and Society. But a closer look at the Stop GMO Baby campaign in France reveals a troubling and at times explicitly hateful politics infiltrating the human genome editing debate. A polarization of the conversation about heritable human genetic modification along “right to life” and “natural family” fault lines threatens to derail public conversations about responsible regulation of science and medicine that serves the public interest.

Paul also recently flagged Alliance VITA’s Stop GMO Baby campaign, cautioning:

“I’m concerned that these campaigns that specifically target CRISPR could have negative effects on the freedom of us scientists to do responsible CRISPR research in the lab. … at least some of the motivation seems to be related to a “right-to-life” perspective. “

I share this concern, and we’re not alone. In a February article titled Gene editing: The next frontier in America’s abortion wars, the “last scientist in Congress” U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) told Politico’s Sarah Karlin that he’d been warned by scientists that “‘this issue will get all tied up over the abortion debate,’ interfering with the creation of ‘good policy decisions.’”

The Stop GMO Baby Campaign

Alliance VITA’s campaign materials on CRISPR take as their central point that CRISPR-Cas9 is an ethically neutral and promising technology that could help gene therapy, but that any use in human embryos or gametes is a red line no researcher in the world should cross. In their other words: “GM babies? No!” Here are some examples of their slogans and statements:

  • Campaign slogan: “CRISPR-Cas9: Yes to Therapeutic Progress, No to Transgenic Embryo!” (March 24, 2016) [Brochure PDF]
  • On February 16, 2016, Alliance VITA Research Director Blanche Streb stated on Catholic television: “The technique poses no ethical problems on its own, it’s the application that does.” (YouTube)
  • Alliance VITA General Delegate-CEO Tugdual Derville commenting on Kathy Niakan’s application to the HFEA in January 2016:

“Although this technique might be promising for genetic therapy, Tugdual Derville reminds us that when applied to the human embryo: “the danger is to cause the emergence of custom-made babies, with pre-selected genetic criteria, heritable modifications, with unknown consequences for future generations. The human genome is part of our most precious “heritage of humanity.” Its integrity must absolutely be preserved for future generations.”

In March, Alliance VITA released a study they conducted finding that 76% of French people support gene therapy, but oppose using CRISPR to genetically modify embryos in vitro. Some of their data conform to a number of other recent studies. But the slipperiness of public opinion polls that Pete Shanks describes in a recent survey of public opinion of human heritable genetic modification is on point here, as the framing of questions may lead to an overstatement of the sanctity of the embryo for the people who polled their opposition.

On April 7, France’s National Assembly Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (l’OPECST) held a hearing on issues raised by CRISPR (program, in French). Alliance VITA Research Director Blanche Streb testified, advocated for an international ban on embryo experiments, and noted that her organization was also concerned by “3 person IVF” mitochondrial replacement technologies in the UK. While Alliance VITA’s media statements and materials mention threats posed by eugenics and transhumanism, their stance is clearly that all experiments on embryos should cease. They appeal to UNESCO’s “genome as commons” as authority, interpreting its call for a collective responsibility to future generations as including the sanctity of the embryo.

La Manif for whom?

La Manif for whom
Pictured L to R: Xavier Bongibault (celebrated by some as a “gay voice against gay marriage”), Frigide Barjot (former celebrity face of La Manif pour tous), and Tugdual Derville (CEO of Alliance VITA) (image via Flickr/Serge klk).

Alliance VITA was a leader of the first-ever rallies of a French movement called “La Manif pour tous” (the Strike for all), a coalition of anti-abortion, anti-LGBT organizations (many professing the Catholic faith) that organized a very visible campaign to oppose the fight for “marriage for all” in France from 2012 to 2014.

For a United States audience, visible opposition to gay and lesbian couples getting married is not novel, although public opinion polls show increasing acceptance. But many the world over were taken aback by the size of the crowds marching in Paris in early 2013 holding blue, pink, and white signs that read “One man, one woman, we don’t lie to children!” The number of marchers, which was hotly debated, was between 150,000 and 1 million.

Paris March against marriage equality
Crowds march in Paris in 2013 to oppose extending marriage and adoption to LGBT couples (image via Wikimedia).

Despite the jaw-dropping scale of these protests, President François Hollande signed a parliamentary law establishing the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry and adopt in May 2013. The following year in August 2014, the French government expanded abortion access so women no longer have to argue “distress” to access a procedure, and agreed to pay for the procedures, at least most of the time.

These recent events could sound like a bell twice tolled for those seeking to narrow French and international discourse on and regulation of what counts as “family” and “life.” But Alliance VITA has rebounded from these two developments by capitalizing on the grassroots power amassed with La Manif pour tous, focusing on other issues related to death and conception (e.g. surrogacy, embryo selection) and launching the new “citizen’s campaign” against CRISPR experiments. Two recent research reports on CRISPR research using nonviable human zygotes have catalyzed the debate about certain cellular masses of particular interest to this movement: “des embryons.”

Flying Colors Wave

Frigide Barjot, a devout Catholic, noted in 2012 that the three colors of La Manif pour tous’ protests represented blue for men, pink for women, and white for LGBT people who were included to show that “they were loved by protestors, who were not homophobic but rather wanted to protect the very idea of ‘family’ and ‘civilization.’” Barjot’s outsider status compared to the movement’s leadership of traditional Catholic and far right political groups led to her replacement in 2013.

La Manif pour tous protests
Left. La Manif pour tous protest in Strasbourg on February 2, 2013 (image via Wikimedia). Right. La Manif pour tous protest in 2013 (image via Flickr/Arslan).

In contrast, the new CRISPR-related campaign takes on the cautionary yellow of GMO campaigns across Europe (stock photo search). France, along with Germany, is one of the most stalwart opponents of GMO foods in Western Europe, creating a huge constituency to draw upon for Stop GMO Baby.

As Paul also recently noted, a right-to-life political campaign in Switzerland used the environmental packaging of a GMO baby in a cornhusk to unsuccessfully oppose a law regulating pre-implantation genetic diagnosis which passed on June 5. (Their website is no longer online, but an advocacy brochure in French is here.)

Greenpeace anti-GMO march
“GMO, I don’t want any.” Greenpeace protestors march in Montpellier in May 2015 (image via Flickr/Pete).

The Science Cited by Alliance VITA

In its 2012 coverage of Alliance VITA and its prominent role in the La Manif pour tous protests, VICE noted with some irony the peculiar sight of “secular opposition to gay marriage”:

“The French Republic was founded on the ideas of equality and a French concept called laïcité—the complete absence of religion in governmental affairs. This means political discourse in France must be entirely free of religious rhetoric…battling civil rights, not with religious ideals, but with science, sociology, and cold, reductive rationality.”

In other words, Alliance Vita needed to invoke science to support a campaign premised on denying gay and lesbian marriage and adoption rights. So the group used a widely cited – and widely discreditedNew Family Structures Study by American sociologist Mark Regnerus on the “differences” seen in children raised by same-sex couples. The study is riddled with methodological problems, and was denounced by the American Sociological Association and 200 scientists and doctors in a 2012 open letter. But Alliance VITA’s “scientific” evidence for the superiority of traditional families goes beyond the debunked significance of Regnerus’s interviews.

Tugdual Derville
The Time of Man: for a human ecology revolution (2016), Tugdual Derville.

Tugdual Derville, CEO and General Delegate of Alliance VITA, led the group’s March 24 press conference, and coordinates media statements with Research Director Blanche Streb. Derville is currently on tour for his newly published book Human Ecology. In various French media venues, he attacks what he refers to as “gender theory feminism,” and argues for biologically determined and distinct gender roles for men and women in family creation, education, and society. It’s what he calls the “sexus,” the natural “family ecosystem” which depends on a “Father-Mother” distinction to prevent the “self-made man.” Derville equates transhumanists with animal rights’ activists, eugenicists with feminists, and the “radical cult of youth” with the “disconnected gerontocracy.” It’s all an indistinguishable bunch of individualistic nonsense to him. “In settling their accounts with their own personal stories, their advocates endanger us all,” he states in a recent interview.

Some French critics of Human Ecology have accused Derville of “green-washing” his traditional ideological fare. Associate professor of French studies at MIT Bruno Perrau has studied and written about La Manif pour tous for years, and commented on the recent campaign via email:

“[T]alking about ecology allows religious arguments to appear in the public debate in a more acceptable way (that is to say as secular arguments). My sense is that there’s no thorough investment on environmental issue (it is mostly used strategically).”

University of Chicago law professor Mary Anne Case, a U.S. expert on the Catholic Church’s rhetoric, doesn’t see contradictions in the environmental packaging of Alliance Vita’s various campaigns:

“Human ecology” is a favorite framework of Benedict XVI, who used it to warn of the potentially devastating effects of what he called the “ideology of gender.”

Laudato Si Pope Francis
Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home (2015), Pope Francis.

Case points to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment (welcomed for its critique of inequality, capitalism, and human-caused global warming), which also talks disapprovingly of embryo research:

“[I]t is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development.” Laudato si’, par. 136.

Case noted in an email, “Seen from within the mindset of those Catholic writers invoking the need to safeguard human ecology in their campaigns against a whole host of sexual rights and law reform efforts, religious and secular motivations openly go hand in hand in the same direction.”

The “secular science v. religious ideology” binary can get in the way of acknowledging that people across the religious and political spectrum have voiced concern about the prospect of using a new generation of genome editing tools to produce altered embryos for the purpose of human reproduction. But the Pope’s and Derville’s framing, in which environmental advocacy somehow mandates accommodating the idea that human embryos should be accorded the status of human lives, doesn’t sit well with me either; it reminds me of a “zero-sum” game, when we need to be in a “grow the pie” mindset given our volatile political climate.

Dangerous Political Territory

Many voices from France have joined in international mourning for the 49 slain and 53 injured victims of the massacre at queer dance club Pulse’s Latin Night in #Orlando on June 12, 2016. In the multi-dimensional public investigation that has followed, a number of tweets using the hashtag #Manifpourtous called out Alliance VITA and its allies for their role in inciting homophobic violence around the world. On June 26, Pope Benedict called on Christians to apologize to gay people and other marginalized groups.

Back in 2012 Alliance VITA and the La Manif pour tous coalition happily cited the Regnerus study, but they weren’t the only ones citing the flawed sociological research promoting homophobic laws. Among others leveraging the “science” to wage their defense of the “natural family” was nearly every American organization opposed to LGBT rights, including the controversial National Organization for Marriage.

One of Alliance VITA’s biggest admirers is Brian Brown, National Organization for Marriage’s president. Brown spent time with La Manif pour tous campaigners in France and this year was elected as President of the World Congress of Families. WCF is an almost 20-year-old effort to organize international spaces for conservative organizers and lawmakers from around the world to collaborate on an anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, “natural family” agenda to support legislation in multiple jurisdictions. (I recommend this historical overview by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Supporting bans on marriage equality is tame in comparison to WCF’s other ongoing efforts. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks the organization as part of its Hatewatch program because of its support of discriminatory legislation, including “gay propaganda” bills in Russia (where regulations recently banned transgender people from driving), “kill the gays” bills in various African countries, and for its ideologically narrow view of “healthy families” used to justify government interference into people’s sex and family lives. WCF is also currently opposing “UN entities’” efforts to expand the UN’s definition of family to include same-sex couples.

World Congress of Families
“Uniting Leaders Worldwide in Defense of Family, Faith, and Freedom”,
World Congress of Families 2016 (image via Eventbrite).

The WCF’s 10th international convening in May 2016 was held in Tblisi, Georgia, where it bestowed honors on former president George W. Bush. He declined to appear, but sent a letter saying,

“I commend your efforts to recognize the importance of families in building nations. Your work improves many lives and makes the world better.”

The event drew far right politicians from around the world, including WCF representative to France Fabrice Sorlin, and granddaughter of French National Front party founder and youngest French MP in history, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

French National Front Party Founding Family
The founding family of the far right National Front party in France, pictured L to R: Marine Le Pen, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen (grey suit), and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (images via Wikimedia).

Marion and her aunt, Marine Le Pen, have been the “new face” packaging for the far-right party’s xenophobic campaign slogans such as “France for the French.” Before the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016 when the UK voted to leave the European Union, Marine Le Pen supported a British “Leave” vote to spark a “chain reaction of decomposition” of the EU.

In addition to a shared support for a British-Exit, Le Pen’s bid in the French regional elections last year was eerily Trump-like. She beat former presidents Nickolas Sarkozy and François Hollande in the first round of the regional parliamentary race in December 2015, but lost in the second. (For many, the rise of Trump in U.S. politics echoes the rise of the extreme right in the British and European contexts; others argue that the Trump phenomenon is distinctly American in nature.)

As the world wrestles to reconcile global warming, unprecedented inequality, refugee crises, and mass shootings, and now the potential for a new era in European politics, how do we confront the political extremism bubbling up in reaction as we engage in sensitive policy debates that shape the world we will leave to future generations?

Ongoing political and religious controversies over abortion and embryo research may fuel partisan ways of thinking and reactionary policies that fail to serve the public interest in this arena. As increasing awareness about CRISPR takes shape, it will be important to be clear about the many “non-embryo” reasons to be critical of some emerging human biotechnologies. We cannot let the far-right capture the conversation about the social and ethical issues surrounding heritable human genetic modification technologies.

The development of new genetic techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 demands a reflective debate on the sort of future world we want to build, the meaning of being human, and how far we’ll go to engineer individuals to fit the society we currently have. My hope is that this debate can spark discussions about deep structural social changes that we already know are needed to improve the lives of communities around the world.

Update: the section on the regional elections in the 4th to last paragraph was corrected thanks to a reader’s alert comment.

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Elliot Hosman, JD, is senior program associate at the Center for Genetics and Society. They were invited to attend the Human Gene Editing summit in December 2015, and live tweeted the event for @C_G_S . They are a regular contributor to Biopolitical Times. You can follow Elliot on Twitter at @helleiot.

1 thought on “Hateful politics infiltrate human genome editing debate in France”

  1. Great piece, thanks. Just a correction regarding the Dec. 2015 election in France: this was not presidential election (which will happen in 2017) but elections to regional parliaments. The far-right party of Mrs LePen indeed registered a political victory by leading the first round in many regions, but the party’s candidates including Mrs LePen lost in all regions during the second round of elections.

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