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Some prominent scientists and bioethicists are calling for a global moratorium on babies created using gene-editing methods. As NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports, the call's aimed at preventing any more scientists from misusing powerful new gene-editing technologies.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: A scientist in China stunned the world last year when he announced he had created the world's first gene-edited babies. So 18 scientists and bioethicists from seven countries are saying a moratorium is urgently needed to try to prevent any more scientists from going rogue.
ERIC LANDER: It's important to draw attention to the fact that nobody thinks we should be doing it.
STEIN: That's Eric Lander, who runs the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard.
LANDER: In some sense, simply using the M word, moratorium, it's time to use it. We all believe that we shouldn't be going forward, and starting off by saying we should have a moratorium brings an important clarity to the thing.
STEIN: The group says any nation that doesn't already prohibit gene-edited babies should declare a moratorium, perhaps for five years, so the world can figure out how to proceed. Scientists need time to do more research to see if it would ever be possible to safely make gene-edited babies, and society needs time to debate whether anyone should and under what circumstances.
LANDER: Deciding should we be reshaping the human genetic code requires a lot of really careful thought. Can it be done safely? But there are much deeper questions about is there a broad societal consensus in countries to use it at all, and if so, for what purposes?
STEIN: Any country that might eventually decide to allow scientists to create gene-edited babies should give the public lots of advance notice, the group says, maybe two years to debate such a momentous move. The call for a moratorium is being welcomed by many scientists and bioethicists. Francis Collins heads the National Institutes of Health.
FRANCIS COLLINS: The philosophical and theological consequences of rewriting our own instruction book are sufficiently major that somebody like me who generally is opposed to the idea of moratoriums feels that it's time to stop and look very carefully at the pros and cons and make a worldwide decision not to go forward until we have more information.
STEIN: But others, while agreeing it's far too premature for anyone to try to make gene-edited babies right now, worry about using the word moratorium. George Daley is the dean of the Harvard Medical School.
GEORGE DALEY: I'm concerned a moratorium complicates future discussions rather than clarifies them. How long should a moratorium last? And who gets to decide how and when to rescind a moratorium? Is such a call going to prompt even more restrictive attempts to legislate the science and prohibit any future clinical work?
STEIN: And maybe prevent the use of gene editing to treat and prevent terrible diseases. Some even worry a moratorium would backfire and just drive rogue scientists deeper underground. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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