Here’s an interesting problem in bioethics: a person knows the field, and has an appropriate response to an individual making a serious ethical lapse, but he doesn’t report it to other authorities. Should he have?
He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who used CRISPR techniques on human embryos, shared his ‘success’ in emails to Craig Mello, a Nobel-prize winning biologist, who then replied a few times with regret.
“I’m glad for you, but I’d rather not be kept in the loop on this,” Mello wrote, according to the AP.
“You are risking the health of the child you are editing… I just don’t see why you are doing this. I wish your patient the best of luck for a healthy pregnancy.”
“I think you are taking a big risk and I do not want anyone to think that I approve of what you are doing,” wrote Mello, who didn’t reply to a request for comment from the AP.
“I’m sorry I cannot be more supportive of this effort, I know you mean well.”
Good for Mello that he was immediately aware of the problematic nature of the research. I think my response would involve a lot more ALL CAPS sentences and a heavy use of exclamation points, and probably some profanity, but then, I’m not a Nobel-prize winning scientist. I would have also said confidentiality be damned, and contacted a swarm of other scientists and the major scientific societies and given the heads up, with a suggestion that everyone ought to be prepared to make a statement on this kind of genetic manipulation when it finally goes public. Maybe Mello did make some quiet notifications to a select few, the article doesn’t say, but it does mention this:
Mello didn’t go public with the revelation – and stayed on as an adviser to He’s company until news broke about the controversial experiment.
Yikes. He’s company. Because of course every biomedical advance must be coupled to a mechanism for extracting profit from it. That’s a great big fat bioethical problem lurking under everything.