Genes drive organisms and slippery slopes

D. B. Resnik, R. F. Medina, F. Gould, G. Church and J. Kuzma,  Pathog Glob Health,  2022.

The bioethical debate about using gene drives to alter or eradicate wild populations has focused mostly on issues concerning short-term risk assessment and management, governance and oversight, and public and community engagement, but has not examined big-picture- ‘where is this going?’-questions in great depth. In other areas of bioethical controversy, big-picture questions often enter the public forum via slippery slope arguments. Given the incredible potential of gene drive organisms to alter the Earth’s biota, it is somewhat surprising that slippery slope arguments have not played a more prominent role in ethical and policy debates about these emerging technologies. In this article, we examine a type of slippery slope argument against using gene drives to alter or suppress wild pest populations and consider whether it has a role to play in ethical and policy debates. Although we conclude that this argument does not provide compelling reasons for banning the use of gene drives in wild pest populations, we believe that it still has value as a morally instructive cautionary narrative that can motivate scientists, ethicists, and members of the public to think more clearly about appropriate vs. inappropriate uses of gene drive technologies, the long-term and cumulative and emergent risks of using gene drives in wild populations, and steps that can be taken to manage these risks, such as protecting wilderness areas where people can enjoy life forms that have not been genetically engineered.

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