Would a gene-editing ban fit human-rights law?

Bryant University, Smithfield, Rhode Island, USA.

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I question the compatibility of the proposed international moratorium on clinical uses of human germline editing with the international human rights framework (see E. Lander et al. Nature 567, 165–168; 2019).

The right to benefit from scientific progress, as set out in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, means that member states must “respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research”. By default, biomedical research — arguably including clinical studies involving edited germline cells — is therefore permitted.

States can modify the default rule, but only according to the general principles of international law — in particular, the parameters outlined in Article 4 of the covenant. The result is that a moratorium can be imposed only if it is “determined by law”, is “compatible with the nature” of the rights recognized in the covenant, and is intended “solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society”.

This means that restrictions to clinical research that are well established and clearly aimed at protecting the welfare of specific individuals, such as the need for research pre-approval and oversight, and for informed consent from research participants, are compatible with human-rights standards.

I believe that the proposed moratorium, by contrast, is of doubtful utility in promoting general welfare, given the potential of clinical research to prevent genetically transmitted disease.

In my view, basing policy on transparency and accountability (see would be more promising and better aligned with the human-rights framework.

Nature 569, 630 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01663-z
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