An Ambitious Vision for Bioethics – Some Reflections on Professor Jing-Bao Nie’s St Cross Seminar

Written by Ben Davies

Many readers of the Practical Ethics blog will remember the astounding announcement last November by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he had used CRISPR-cas9 technology to edit into two healthy embryos a resistance to developing HIV, later resulting in the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. As Professor Julian Savulescu expressed in several posts on this blog, the announcement spurred widespread ethical condemnation.

The first in this year’s series of St Cross Special Ethics seminars saw the University of Otago’s Professor Jing-Bao Nie (who is also currently a 2019/20 Fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study) get behind the headlines to consider the political and social context of He’s experiment. At the core of Professor Nie’s presentation was that the decision to engage in genetic editing of healthy embryos could neither be written off as the act of a ‘rogue researcher’, nor dismissed as merely the product of a uniquely Chinese disregard for ethics, as some have argued.

With respect to the second problem, Professor Nie acknowledged that there is a specifically Chinese context to He’s actions. Firstly, he pointed out that China has a specific cultural relationship to the idea of Yousheng, or Eugenics. For instance, the idea of having focusing on ‘quality over quantity’ of children is seen in quite a positive light by some (though he counselled against viewing any culture as monolithic in its ethical outlook). In addition, He’s work has to be seen in the context of China’s pursuit of global political status. Advances in gene editing are one way of demonstrating the country’s ascendancy as a global power.

One might be tempted to conclude from this that there is a specifically Chinese context to the Lulu and Nana story. But Professor Nie pointed out that things are not so simple. Firstly, there was a significant ethical outcry to He’s announcement within China, from both the scientific community and general public. What’s more, many Chinese criticisms of He’s actions would be entirely recognisable to those of us viewing things from the West. While it might be tempting to dichotomise China and the West, this should be resisted.

Even more interesting was Professor Nie’s proposal that the willingness to instrumentalise life that was present in He’s actions is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, but part of a trend of global modernity that is also present outside China. While there is clearly a Chinese socio-political context that is essential to understanding He’s behaviour and choices, that context is itself situated within a broader global context. This was echoed later when, in response to a question, Professor Nie insisted that we see the event not as an individual failure, but a collective failure of ethical oversight.

Professor Nie finished his presentation with some reflections on what the He scandal might tell us about contemporary bioethics. In brief, he suggested that the discipline must face up to three deficits:

  • rootlessness: a tendency to focus on ethical ‘dilemmas’ in isolation, ignoring the social and political context in which they operate;
  • heartlessness: a tendency to focus on rationality at the expense of emotion
  • soullessness: a tendency to focus on mind and body, ignoring spiritual or existential issues

In this vein, Professor Nie advocated that those of us engaged in bioethics try to learn from and interact more with other humanities and social sciences, developing what he called a socio-bioethics, as well as engaging more with the ethical and social practice of other cultures, while also resisting a tendency to see those cultures as lacking moral diversity.

I found much to agree with in Professor Nie’s lecture – his advocacy of the importance of socio-political context was supported by the depth that his talk provided to what I had, I admit, previously been thinking about in an overly simplistic way. Similarly, his call to engage with other disciplines and cultures finds echoes in many contemporary practitioners of bioethics and philosophy more broadly, such as the movement to diversify syllabi (though Professor Nie is surely right that there is a lot more work to be done).

Nonetheless, are questions remaining about precisely what role each of these recommendations should play in the practice of bioethics (since Professor Nie did not claim to offer a full plan of action, these questions are best taken as part of the project he advocates, rather than challenges to it).

For instance, while our understanding of both the national and global culture within which He was working greatly informs our understanding of what happened, should it alter our ethical analysis of his behaviour? Is it that bioethics should merely pay more attention to what is going on outside it, or that bioethics should become something else in a radical way? That these questions remain at the end of Professor Nie’s St Cross seminar is a testament to his thought-provoking, enriching lecture.

You can listen to a recording of the event here.

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