The Economist on ethics and reproductive technologies

250px-theeconomistlogo-svgThe latest issue of the Economist addresses new developments in the biotech sector. The occasion is both the 20th anniversary of the cloned sheep Dolly as well as the recent report by the American National Academy of the Sciences on genome editing. The issue is opened with a one-page editorial called “Sex and science“.

Below is my letter to the editor that I just sent off (with just a few minor edits). Whether they’ll print it, publish it online, or disregard it, we’ll see. I inserted links in addition.


Superficial slogans dressed up as objective expertise

The editorial on reproductive technologies (“Sex and science”, February 18th) attempts to break down a whole cluster of bioethical issues into a one-page guideline. For some of the technologies involved, the basis in reality is difficult to evaluate. More importantly, the editorial tries to shut down public debate by critiquing “misplaced” moral intuitions of ordinary people, arguing that biopolitical decisions should be left to expert commissions and the courts. Presumably, such commissions would consist overwhelmingly of scientists and legal scholars, as in the editorial’s example of the American NAS panel on genome editing.

The criterion that the Economist recommends to these commissions is “happy parents and healthy children”. What might seem like plain common sense to some, however, is an overly simplistic slogan. The editorial rightly points out that IVF has brought joy to many infertile couples. But a recent BBC documentary on Britain’s fertility business goes a first step in attaining a fuller picture.

And what is health anyway? To what lengths should we go to attain it? Empirical studies show that people with disability are satisfied with their lives, to say the least, although falling short of conventional health ideals. The expectation that science will solve the larger part of life’s biological problems for us is too idealistic. Medicine is to be appreciated, but sometimes a fulfilled life may be found precisely in the face of difficult circumstances, while the hope of the medical fix can create problems of its own. Rather than contributing to informed debate, the editorial passes off half-baked ideas as objective science.