Hateful politics infiltrate human genome editing debate in France

By Elliot Hosman

Summary.  A campaign calling for a moratorium on using CRISPR in human embryos was launched by a prominent French organization fighting for narrow understandings of life and family.

A recent campaign calling for a ban on “transgenic” human embryos was launched by one of France’s most prominent organizations fighting for “science”-backed “one-man-one-woman” families, and the exclusion of all other forms.

Stop Baby GMO Campaign

“Stop GMO Baby: Yes to therapeutic progress, no to transgenic embryos” (image via Alliance VITA).

Since March 24, more than 15,500 people in France have signed a Change.org petition started by Alliance VITA declaring (translated from French*):

“I ask my country to engage with all urgency to obtain an international moratorium – that is to say an immediate stop – on the genetic modification of human embryos, especially via the technique CRISPR-cas9.”

*all French materials and quotations presented in English in this post have been translated using Google and my college-level French. Suggested revisions to translations are welcome and will be noted. Alliance VITA offers some materials on its website in English.

In that time, volunteers have canvassed cities around France, handing out brochures explaining the breakthrough CRISPR genome editing technology, and tweeting pictures of their advocacy using Flickr and the hashtags: #StopBébéOGM, #ProtectHumanity, and #CRISPR-Cas9.

Alliance VITA’s opposition to using human gene editing for reproduction is widely shared, including by my organization, the Center for Genetics and Society. But a closer look at the Stop GMO Baby campaign in France reveals a troubling and at times explicitly hateful politics infiltrating the human genome editing debate. A polarization of the conversation about heritable human genetic modification along “right to life” and “natural family” fault lines threatens to derail public conversations about responsible regulation of science and medicine that serves the public interest.

Paul also recently flagged Alliance VITA’s Stop GMO Baby campaign, cautioning:

“I’m concerned that these campaigns that specifically target CRISPR could have negative effects on the freedom of us scientists to do responsible CRISPR research in the lab. … at least some of the motivation seems to be related to a “right-to-life” perspective. “

I share this concern, and we’re not alone. In a February article titled Gene editing: The next frontier in America’s abortion wars, the “last scientist in Congress” U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) told Politico’s Sarah Karlin that he’d been warned by scientists that “‘this issue will get all tied up over the abortion debate,’ interfering with the creation of ‘good policy decisions.’”

The Stop GMO Baby Campaign

Alliance VITA’s campaign materials on CRISPR take as their central point that CRISPR-Cas9 is an ethically neutral and promising technology that could help gene therapy, but that any use in human embryos or gametes is a red line no researcher in the world should cross. In their other words: “GM babies? No!” Here are some examples of their slogans and statements:

  • Campaign slogan: “CRISPR-Cas9: Yes to Therapeutic Progress, No to Transgenic Embryo!” (March 24, 2016) [Brochure PDF]
  • On February 16, 2016, Alliance VITA Research Director Blanche Streb stated on Catholic television: “The technique poses no ethical problems on its own, it’s the application that does.” (YouTube)
  • Alliance VITA General Delegate-CEO Tugdual Derville commenting on Kathy Niakan’s application to the HFEA in January 2016:

“Although this technique might be promising for genetic therapy, Tugdual Derville reminds us that when applied to the human embryo: “the danger is to cause the emergence of custom-made babies, with pre-selected genetic criteria, heritable modifications, with unknown consequences for future generations. The human genome is part of our most precious “heritage of humanity.” Its integrity must absolutely be preserved for future generations.”

In March, Alliance VITA released a study they conducted finding that 76% of French people support gene therapy, but oppose using CRISPR to genetically modify embryos in vitro. Some of their data conform to a number of other recent studies. But the slipperiness of public opinion polls that Pete Shanks describes in a recent survey of public opinion of human heritable genetic modification is on point here, as the framing of questions may lead to an overstatement of the sanctity of the embryo for the people who polled their opposition.

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Diverse Stem Cell Person of the Year 2014 Award Finalists

Stem Cell Award Poll 2014With more than 4,142 votes cast, the readers of this blog have chosen the top 12 finalists for the Stem Cell Person of the Year Award for 2014 from the 27 nominees.

You can see the final vote tallies at left. The votes came from more than 50 countries with some interesting geographic patterns (I may do a post on that as a follow up).

I’ve pasted the brief bios of the twelve finalists below at the end of this post.

Now comes the tough task for me to pick a single winner from this amazing group. I will announce the Stem Cell Person of the Year 2014 within 1-2 weeks.

The finalists are a diverse group. They include scientists from academia and industry, patient advocates, a blogger, and the Pope. We have six male and six female finalists who live all around the world including in the US, Japan, Sweden, Canada, and Vatican City.

I’m happy to see both some familiar faces from nominees and finalists from past years and new ones too.

Who would you pick as the one winner and why? Post in the comments.

Finalists Bios (including in bold quotes from nominators)

Chris Fasano. A principal investigator at the Neural Stem Cell Institute where he uses stem cells to study early nervous system development. “Chris stands out for his energy, enthusiasm, dedication to the field, creativity and accomplishments.”

Don C. Reed. Long-time stem cell research advocate who played a key role in the success of Prop 71 and the creation of CIRM. “A tireless stem cell advocate always there to make a positive difference.”

Janet Rossant. Professor, University of Toronto. Stem Cell Researcher and Past President, ISSCR. “She works tirelessly to create new opportunities and collaborations…globally respected for her work in early development and embryonic stem cells”

Judy Roberson. Long-time Huntington’s Disease patient advocate. “She makes concrete positive developments happen such as millions of dollars in research funding for HD.”

JuuichiJigen. Japanese blogger who investigates scientific misconduct and played a key role in revealing the STAP scandal. He was the first to investigate and bring to the public of problems with STAP papers. His investigations demonstrated the role of social media and post-publication peer review in rapid self-correction of science.”

Malin Parmar. Associate Professor, Developmental and Regenerative Neurobiology, Lund University. Top neural regeneration scientist. “Young, hard worker who is doing very well”.

Masayo Takahashi. Stem cell researcher leading the team that is doing the first ever clinical study based on human iPS cells. “Creative and courageous clinical stem cell researcher.”

Pope Francis. Leader of Worldwide Catholic Church. “Strong supporter of adult stem cell biotechs and research”.

Robert Lanza. CSO of Advanced Cell Technology, which has multiple ES cell-based clinical trials ongoing. “Visionary and practical so makes the impossible possible with stem cells”.

Susan Solomon. Co-Founder and CEO of The New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF). Remarkably effective advocate for stem cell research. “Not many leaders have created their own research laboratories and raised $100 million plus. Seriously, what an accomplishment!”

Ted Harada. Leading stem cell research advocate and very effective ALS patient advocate. “An Energizer Bunny for the ALS community and stem cell advocate”

Tory Williams. Stem cell advocate and author of the 2014 book, Inevitable Collision. Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Alabama Institute of Medicine (AIM). “A true hero who inspires and makes real things happen like AIM”.