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.

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Live Blog #GeneEditSummit Day 1 Post 1: Context & Science

This is blog post #1 from Day 1 of the National Academy of Sciences meeting on Human Gene editing. Some of the post may be written on the fly given the quick timeline of the meeting. Updates will sometimes be added to existing posts. See the subsequent three posts on the rest of the day here, here, and here.#GeneEditSummit

Here is the agenda for each of the three days including today.

The meeting was kicked off with an introduction by David Baltimore and words from Congressman Bill Foster (it seems the only Ph.D. scientist in Congress) and John P. Holdren, The Obama Administration’s top scientist.

Foster nicely outlined potential risks and benefits of human genetic modification. He emphasized that the first side of CRISPR presented to public is the positive side. He said that we don’t want to jeopardize the science. He went on that a moratorium, should there be one, should not be an absolute ban. There’s great potential, he ended, with human genetic modification technology, but we should not blindly forge ahead.

John Holdren spoke next. He emphasized that the position of the Obama Administration continues to be that altering the human genome for clinical purposes should not be crossed at this time. He noted this fits with the NIH policy and the comments of Francis Collins. He emphasized the differences between somatic and germline modifications. A more cautionary tone than that of Rep. Foster.

Dr. Zhihong Xu said that the Chinese Academy of Sciences encourages our scientists to take responsible approaches to human gene editing.

David Baltimore gives more historical perspective. “Today we sense we are close to being able to alter human heredity.” He cites Brave New World in discussion of human gene editing & we should take its warning to heart. “Human editing is something that all people should pay attention too. This is not fear mongering.” The Organizing Committee will suggest a path forward on the last day via a statement.

Ismail Serageldin– Not everything that is tech feasible is ethically wise, but tech has often historically been positive. He says, reflect on our dark past of eugenics & racism. He also cites Brave New World as did David Baltimore.

Daniel J. Kevles, New York University, spoke next. Daniel J. Kevles, He starts out with context of “shadow of eugenics”. Grave tone. He outlined the disturbing US eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Issues to keep in mind: economics (health care), racial stereotyping, overconfidence in gene function, and consumer demand.

Alta Charo, University of Wisconsin, Madison was up next in this session. Approaches to new technology range from promotional to restrictive on the other extreme. In the middle is self-regulation. She invoked the gene therapy Gelsinger case. One big failure could be a setback for entire field here too.