Bioethics: Sikh Perspective on Genome Editing

The article is based on and, hopefully, adds to an earlier Sikh view about bio-ethics, says author Gurmukh Singh. "This silent threat to the future of life on earth is as revolutionary as the development of "dual-use" nuclear energy which can also be converted to weapons of mass destruction. Collated in about 10 days the item is more like work-in-progress, but, hopefully, it does sum up the opportunities and challenges," he says in a note to Asia Samachar.

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Gurmukh Singh | Opinion | 28 March 2016 Asia Samachar |

[Background: Nuffield Council on Bioethics (UK): Call for evidence on genome editing. Sikh Faith perspective: Statement by the Sikh Missionary Society UK]

(Collated by Gurmukh Singh UK)

[Note:  A genome is a full set of chromosomes i.e. all the inheritable traits of an organism.

 

The longer term implications of “genome editing” are revolutionary. To quote from a background paper as: “Developments in genome editing using engineered nucleases (endonucleases) are intended to facilitate researchers to precisely alter genes or genomes in many species. Genome editing has been said to be revolutionising biology. If these techniques continue to show success, it will be possible to alter or replace virtually any component of any genome; from a single base pair of DNA to a whole gene or series of genes.” A Sikh view was invited at short notice. At the Sikh Missionary Society UK, we felt that the opportunity should be taken to promote discussion. This paper should be regarded as work-in-progress.]

 

A. Introduction & summary

This statement considers the ethical aspects of genome editing in three parts:

a)  The first part identifies the concerns and issues which in the Society’s view merit ethical consideration from a faith perspective;

b)  the second part lists the relevant  Sikh faith ethics and precepts which can be applied; and,

c) the third part attempts to give a Sikh faith perspective regarding genome editing based on Sikh faith principles.

 

For a layperson, the main pointers to ethical challenges are given in the questions in the Nuffield Council’s “call for evidence”. Genome editing is a “revolutionising biology”. It has the potential to solve many problems that humanity is facing, but at the same time can be used to alter and make irreversible changes on earth. While the evidence is still emerging, past experience suggests that without global regulation and direction to ensure constructive applications, proliferation of technologies like genome editing can pose major threats to life as it has been known to exist on earth.

Sikh theology is clear that when the collective good is seen to be the objective, to solve the overarching problems confronting humanity, we should not be constrained by any school of thought or orthodoxy [Jagath jalandhaa raakh lae apnee kirpaa dhhaar  jith dwaarae ubhrae thithhae laee ubhaar – Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) p 853]. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Sikhs are not seen as intensely opposed to or obsessed with reservations on most of the scientific or technological advances. They are, however, guided by an overall ethical and moral validation and management of change: that validation is holistic in character that it should take care of all facets and stakeholders’ concerns.

 

Summary/Conclusion:

Sikh faith perspective suggests that acquisition of knowledge is part of human quest for union with the divine, because all knowledge contributes to individual as well as collective abilities to hone the quality of action choices [gian]. The faith however commends for the believers to explore further into the interdependencies and interconnectedness inherent in creation. This would enable one to understand the divine vision of natural phenomenon and help fit human choices better into totality of existential realities. This approach necessarily ensures inter disciplinary integrated problem solving rather than being restricted to any specific speciality. Therefore, the use of emerging techniques and technologies with their undisputed potential for common good, would need not only imposition of global disciplines and the need for timely ethical direction to ensure social justice and fair distribution of benefits for all, but also add urgency for science and religion to find joint solutions to the challenges and threats posed. Involvement of faith groups in deliberations therefore is needed, welcome and appropriate.

The need for global regulation and control will become even more compelling due to the possibility of dual civil/military use of the technologies. The alternative would be a free-for-all leading towards global ecological imbalance and disaster. It may be argued that some of the advantages mentioned e.g. cheaper and universal availability and application, can also pose global threats to human beings, animals, plants, and micro level life forms through un-checked civil/military exploitation of the genome technologies by those most in need of them e.g. the developing countries.

Sadly, human experience to date  e.g. in connection with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, is that the global socio-political and regulatory organisation, which can also promote science and religion working together, has a long way to go to meet the imminent challenges posed by genome technologies.

From a Sikh perspective, deeper exploration of integrated benefits and costs to quality of life and sustainability of global resources would help to draw optimal dividend from these emerging technologies.

 

B. Concerns and issues which in the Society’s view merit ethical consideration from a faith perspective.

These have been gleaned from the background paper “Identifying key developments, issues and questions relating to techniques of genome editing with engineered nucleases”  by Drs Newson & Wrigley, and the indicative questions in Nuffield Council’s “call for evidence”. The list is in shorthand and mostly source wording has been used.  Clearly, the list below is not comprehensive, but only indicative of some of the main concerns:

1. Genome editing is a revolutionising biology and it requires reassessment of the ethics, policy, governance and law surrounding its use.

2. Applications of genome editing are diverse and potentially limitless.

3. There are serious ethical issues arising from the use of genome editing in humans which pose “irrevocable and unforeseen risks to future generations”.

4. It presents the possibility of a ‘tipping point’ in genetic modification.

5. There are threats to biodiversity.

6. There is concern about customer/consumer-driven modifications to human and non-human animals and plants (animal welfare is very much a Sikh religious concern).

7. There are serious resource and Social Justice concerns. The wider issue of equity in distributing its benefits has not been resolved. There are restrictions to technology transfer between countries.

8.  There is a possibility of the North–South socio-economic gap widening due to (non)participation of developing countries in the global debate about the use of these technologies and the “differential affect on the interests of people in vulnerable or marginalised groups”. The technologies are mostly funded and exploited for their own benefit by the Western countries. The equitable sharing of the benefits of research needs to be resolved.

9. There are concerns relating to biosafety and biosecurity at micro and macro levels. The ease and speed of colonisation of environment of microorganisms may pose problems for other organisms, including gene transfer and the multiplication of pathogenic organisms.

10. Possibility of military applications would categorise genome editing as “dual use research of concern” (DRC) raising concerns about security and misuse e.g. gene transfer can be used as weapon.

11. It raises ethical concerns about “directed evolution” as opposed to natural evolution.

12. Biodiversity would be at risk from the dominance of genetically modified crops through widespread use of genome editing. Fewer varieties might, ultimately, be unable to respond to new environmental problems without human intervention, creating the potential for widespread crop failure and famine.

 

C. Relevant Sikh faith principles which can be applied to seek guidance

Instead of providing fixed unchanging answers to changing problems, Sikh faith provides an unchanging process based on moral framework in which one can devise moral and ethical criteria by which an ethical dilemma can be negotiated. [This is Guru Nanak’s approach well appreciated by Western scholarship (Ref: Guru Nanak in Western Scholarship, 1992, by J S Grewal)]

Inherent in Sikh teachings is the principle that all rights come with responsibilities and no actions are free of accountability. [Jeha beejay so lunnay karma sandra khet. SGGS p 134] Human beings are at the top of the biological evolution [SGGS p 374] and carry much responsibility for all animal and plant species

Before committing to an action, a human being must delve into his or her essential being. “Recognise the divine spark within you”.[“Mann toon Jote Saroop hain apna mool pacchaan.” SGGS p 441 ] The divine spark is discovered and nurtured by love, by service to the community [SGGS p. 26]  and sharing, and by recognition of the same spark in all [SGGS p1349].

The creation came into being and is managed through Hukam, an expression for known or unknown immutable divine laws and other discretionary divine interventions. The Divine Law is the same at micro and macro levels of existence.

The macro balance in creation is through the forces that ethically are represented by compassion, contentment and total devotion to duty [dharam].

All is in Divine Will/Hukam [SGGS p1] interpreted as dharam not by choice but due to reward & punishment [SGGS p132]. As a result, self-centred consciousness continues to evolve (or is compelled to evolve) towards collective consciousness,  responsibility and decision making.

Therefore, decision making process does not occur in isolation and individual choices are ratified collectively.

“Significantly, while human experience has been indicative of incidents of possible lack of sufficient forethought before opting for what seemed to serve the immediately compelling needs, unchanging adherence to these ethical principles [of dharam] have kept the systems and operations of the  universe stay engaged in their routines almost endlessly in a state of conflict free operation from beginning of time.” (Prof. Nirmal Singh, “Development & Ethical Boundaries: Human Conditioning to Learn from Afterthought.” ) [also SGGS Shabad Je ko bujhay hovay sachiar….Dhol dhram dya ka poot….SGGS p 3]

 

D. Sikh faith perspective: ethical aspects of genome editing 

The challenge before all faiths is to reflect on the universal human and ethical values inherent in their ideologies and to interpret them in the context of the global impact of genome editing technologies and the related ethical and moral issues emerging and/or even unenvisioned at the moment.

From the information which has been provided, we are convinced that genome editing is indeed a revolutionising technology which has profound implication for life on earth. However, the Sikh faith view is that all is within and according to Divine Will (Hukam). That includes human quest for knowledge, and it is not within man’s power to (ultimately), nor even advisable, to stop research or the acquisition of knowledge.

It is possible that by divine direction, science and technologies like genome editing are moving rapidly (gearing up) to meet the need for life to survive in anticipated and unanticipated changing environmental conditions. (For example, these technologies could also make habitation by earth life forms possible even in the harsh environments of the planets.)

The need is for man to be aware of own imperfections and proceed with great caution and continual vigilance when applying science and technology to the alteration of own hereditary characteristics evolved over millions of years by nature.

To quote Prof. Nirmal Singh, “The problems that we are talking of have been experienced by and between the micro created life forms. What our choices may have been doing to the macro system is only now beginning to be a subject of concern. The macro balance in creation is through the forces that ethically are represented by compassion, contentment and total devotion to duty (dharma). Natural evolution over millions of years has been a slow process, but, generally, it has been time-tested and self correcting. Until the advent of the nuclear technology, the short term predictability of the consequences of development of human knowledge,  brought about improvements in human condition over the millennia.”

However, short or even medium term predictability of genome editing is not a satisfactory solution to its unpredictable long term consequences, which have been so well brought out in the Background Paper and as suggested by Nuffield Council’s own discussion around the (rather leading) key questions. The need is for a longer term global level assessment which brings together science and religion.

Hitherto, socio-political organisation, foresight and sense of global responsibility of human beings at the top of natural evolution of life, have lagged behind advances in science and technology. There are many examples e.g. vast range of defence technologies; preventive health care leading to massive population increases preceding political, economic and other developments; food production through intensive cultivation to meet food needs but resulting in ecological disasters in some parts of the world; climate change and related well known issues etc.

A revolutionary and irreversible technology like genome editing requires a global perspective and a long term view. Like the nuclear energy, depending on man’s sense of responsibility and practise of dharam, it is either a gift which offers the technology for human survival and ability to face future threats to life on earth or a curse with the potential to destroy life. We must proceed in humility and prayer and be prepared to take full personal and collective social responsibility for the consequences of genetic modifications. The mental/spiritual approach required is that of complete harmonisation with the Will of the Creator, sense of service to all creation and a highly responsible attitude which promotes human values and the progress of human institutions. The ethical objectivity of knowledge must never be lost.

Regrettably, the indications are that the hitherto practice of  “human conditioning to learn from afterthought” would continue. Sadly, we do not get the sense that we have the required ethical-regulatory internationally enforceable framework in place as yet. We also get the sense that some ground level realities regarding different stages of human socio-political development and the diversity of nation states, are being glossed over in the wake of scientific research and development zeal. Yet, stopping scientific research is not a viable option.

In this context, Nuffield Council’s initiative to alert the world community to the vast potential and consequences of genome technologies is highly commendable.

 

Collated and edited for The Sikh Missionary Society UK by Gurmukh Singh OBE, Chair, Advisory Board, The Sikh Missionary Society UK

 

Acknowledgements:  Interpretation of Sikh ideology in this paper draws on an earlier paper “Sikhism & Bioethical Issues” based on the writings of Dr I J Singh (New York), Dr G S Mansukhani (renowned scholar author) and Bhai Dharam Singh Sujjon of UK. The Society is grateful for the invaluable advice by Professor Nirmal Singh [USA] presently at Delhi.

 

Relevant Web links:

Background paper

http://nuffieldbioethics.org/wp-content/uploads/Genome-Editing-Briefing-Paper-Newson-Wrigley.pdf

Nuffield Council “call for evidence”

http://nuffieldbioethics.org/wp-content/uploads/NCOB_GenomeEditing-CallForEvidence1.pdf

Sikhism and Bioethical Issues: http://www.sikhmissionarysociety.org/sms/smsarticles/advisorypanel/gurmukhsinghsewauk/sikhismandbioethicalissues.html

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.). E-mail: sewauk2005@yahoo.co.uk
Please acknowledge quotations from this article. Articles may be published subject to prior approval by the author

Gurmukh Singh UK3

Gurmukh Singh OBE, a retired UK senior civil servant, chairs the Advisory Board of The Sikh Missionary Society UK

 

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