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In risk we trust/Editing embryos and mirroring future risks and uncertainties

Abstract

Tendencies and efforts have shifted from genome description, DNA mapping, and DNA sequencing to active and profound re-programming, repairing life on genetic and molecular levels in some parts of contemporary life science research. Mirroring and materializing this atmosphere, various life engineering technologies have been used and established in many areas of life sciences in the last decades. A contemporary progressive example of one such technology is DNA editing. Novel developments related to reproductive technologies, particularly embryo editing, prenatal human life engineering, and germline engineering need to be analyzed against the broader social and structural background. The crucial analytical scope for this paper is a specific field: the life-editing technologies used in reproductive medicine and performed experimentally on viable human embryos, particularly CRISPR/Cas9 technology. This text argues that germline editing technologies, as a representative part of contemporary biomedicine, are merging ideas of treatment and enhancement to avoid future risks. Using this specific life manipulation of embryos and gametes, the text analyzes these processes within the concept of power over life—biopower and the specific governing rationality that imagines, classifies, and governs contemporary societies. The text specifically focuses on the potential to create, define, and manage future risks and uncertainties related to prenatal life.

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Notes

  1. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. See also Redman et al. (2016).

  2. CRISPR/Cas9 technology has been used since the 1970s, when the first DNA-cutting enzymes were discovered.

  3. “There are three major settings in which genome editing can be applied in biomedicine: (1) basic research that helps advance understanding of human disease and its treatment; (2) clinical applications to treat or prevent disease or disability in somatic cells (non-reproductive cells), and; (3) clinical applications to treat or prevent disease or disability in germline cells (reproductive cells)” http://studyres.com/doc/17254330/human-genome-editing-%E2%80%93-science--ethics--and-governance).

  4. https://www.nature.com/news/uk-scientists-gain-licence-to-edit-genes-in-human-embryos-1.19270.

  5. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=12032015a.

  6. See also Jinek et al. (2013).

  7. https://www.geneticsandsociety.org/article/new-eugenics-case-against-genetically-modified-humans.

  8. https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4018.

  9. See also Vogel and Stokstad (2015).

  10. PGD is preimplantation genetic diagnosis, profiling embryos to identify genetic diseases and pathological mutations and involving their potential selection. The technology is used in assisted reproduction.

  11. Often interpreted as abnormalities or defects.

  12. The concept of bio-objects is based on the COST project: Bio-objects and their boundaries: governing matters at the intersection of society, politics, and science (http://www.cost.eu/COST_Actions/isch/IS1001). Sociologists involved in this project suggest analyzing the processes of bio-objectification, i.e. how various manifestations of life are created and given life or multiple lives. Life itself is dealt with primarily by life sciences, even more now that life has become manageable on molecular and genetic levels. This often causes essentialization, which is why the team of scientists from the COST project wanted to address the processes of objectification—the materialization of life into objects: to avoid the reduction that sees life itself as only cells, genes, etc.

  13. For example, aging is not an illness officially, but it is medicalized extensively (see Conrad’s texts about biomedicalization).

  14. Foucault used the term bio-power “to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life. … For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question … If the question of man was raised—insofar as he was a specific living being, and specifically related to other living beings” (Foucault 1978, p. 143).

  15. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=1203201.

  16. See also Heavey (2015) or Schyfter et al. (2015).

  17. This is also supported by the objectification of the vital systems as stressed by Calvert: “slightly more reflection is found in a Science article which at least recognises that there is a gap between the organism and the computer programme in saying that ‘Synthetic biologists eventually aim to make bacteria into tiny programmable computers’” (Ferber in Calvert 2010, p. 10).

  18. “The introduction of agriculture, for instance, played a role not only in shaping our environment, but has fundamentally changed our genomes. The same could be said about technologies such as literacy and numeracy, which laid the foundations for technological innovations that have significantly changed us” (Buchanan 2008, 2011 in Cavaliere 2017).

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Acknowledgements

I thank the journal’s anonymous reviewers for their comments, crucial suggestions and encouragement.

Funding

This paper is supported by funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 750088 (Artificial Life/Anthropological and Sociological Analysis of Life Engineering).

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Correspondence to Eva Šlesingerová.

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Šlesingerová, E. In risk we trust/Editing embryos and mirroring future risks and uncertainties. Med Health Care and Philos 22, 191–200 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11019-018-9851-0

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Keywords

  • Editing life
  • Editing embryos
  • Life-engineering
  • Biopower
  • Risk
  • Uncertainty