Alleviating the burden of malaria with gene drive technologies? A biocentric analysis of the moral permissibility of modifying malaria mosquitoes

N. de Graeff, K. R. Jongsma and A. L. Bredenoord,  Journal of Medical Ethics,  2023.

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Gene drive technologies (GDTs) have been proposed as a potential new way to alleviate the burden of malaria, yet have also raised ethical questions. A central ethical question regarding GDTs relates to whether it is morally permissible to intentionally modify or eradicate mosquitoes in this way and how the inherent worth of humans and non-human organisms should be factored into determining this. Existing analyses of this matter have thus far generally relied on anthropocentric and zoocentric perspectives and rejected an individualist biocentric outlook in which all living organisms are taken to matter morally for their own sake. In this paper, we reconsider the implications of taking a biocentric approach and highlight nuances that may not be evident at first glance. First, we shortly discuss biocentric perspectives in general, and then outline Paul Taylor’s biocentric theory of respect for nature. Second, we explore how conflicting claims towards different organisms should be prioritised from this perspective and subsequently apply this to the context of malaria control using GDTs. Our ethical analysis shows that this context invokes the principle of self-defence, which could override the pro tanto concerns that a biocentrist would have against modifying malaria mosquitoes in this way if certain conditions are met. At the same time, the case study of GDTs underlines the relevance of previously posed questions and criticism regarding the internal consistency of Taylor’s egalitarian biocentrism.

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