Team:Marburg/Human Practice/Bioethics


Talk with Friedemann Voigt Previous

Friedemann VoigtWe also lead an internal discussion about the ethical aspects of our project. The main question was: “Is it (ethical) acceptable what we are doing in the lab?”. Our lively discussion resulted in more open questions than in answers and we decided to ask these questions to Prof. Dr. Friedemann Voigt, an expert in bioethics.

Should scientists be held accountable in case genetically engineered organisms are unintentionally released from a lab and cause harm?

Generally science is not excluded from society and its norms. Ethical principles, which are valid for a certain society, are thus conclusively valid in science.

If I cause a traffic accident due to careless driving, I will be liable for the damage, even if I did not intend to cause harm. Although on the other hand: If a malfunctioning traffic light shows green for both lines, thus causing an accident, the drivers could not be held accountable for the damage. Considering your example, one could assume: If a scientist is unintentionally involved in the release of a genetically engineered organism, it is plausible that he can be held accountable personally. If, for example, the lab’s security system breaks down, the situation needs to be further examined to determine, who is responsible for such malfunction. In which extend the scientist has to be brought to book to that certain case is more a juridical question than an ethical. Although personal liability in such cases is absolutely in accordance with ethical principle of justice and responsibility.

Do scientists hold any moral responsibilities, if their results of research are being misused to do harm?

Such questions are currently discussed in a “dual use” context, especially in reference to Synthetic Biology. Those debates deal with the possibility of using materials and knowledge not only for the benefit, but also to inflict damage on society.

In the past these arguments primarily affected nuclear science, but nowadays it is the research field of life sciences, keyword "bioterrorism". These debates have to be treated with caution, since they actually address political or even military possibilities controlling research ‒ only under the pretext of ethics. Well, now it is important for science's acceptance, not to leave an impression of being uncontrollable. But, in my opinion, the dual-use-subject accentuates exactly that. Because if someone reasons ethically intense he or she has to admit, that the dual-use-problem cannot be resolved on principle. One of the main characteristics of modern scientific knowledge is the fact that it can be used for variable applications. Hence somebody who is only doing research when he can be assured that the results will only be used for harmless applications, he is not going to be able to perform research at all. This is particularly relevant in the field of basic research and enabling technologies.

But of course there is also a personal moral responsibility under these conditions. Every researcher should therefore participate on debates dealing with the questions for what purpose his or her results of research could be used or misused and for what they should be used. As already mentioned science is not beyond to society. A researcher is always involved in the design of our society. As an expert, the scientist has an important and responsible task, when the debate is about the advantages and dangers of research. It is the scientists moral liability to see this responsibility as an important part of his or her job.

Are there any ethical concerns creating organisms (through Synthetic Biology) for one particular purpose? And if so ‒ which concerns could arise?

Where is the limit of Synthetic Biology that should not be exceeded ‒ related to the stage model developed by your "Bioethics Work Group"?

A very important idea of the stage model is to strengthen the ethical essential sense of reality in the debates to Synthetic Biology. We defined ethical problematic steps, which actually refer to already existing or direct imminent research.

However, both critics and supporters of Synthetic Biology often spend far too much time discussing potential future-options rather than discussing the possibilities they currently have at their disposal. Nowadays ‒ first on foremost everything takes place on the microbiological level and consists more in the modification of organisms, than in their very creation. Also the creation of organisms should take place in microbiological dimension for the foreseeable future. For instance, if we take a look at the research on Diatoms performed in Uwe Maier's research group at SYNMIKRO and describe, what the modification of algae actually means and for what purpose it is applied ‒ this research appears to be not only harmless concerning the ethical criteria of damage prevention, social benefit and responsibility for the future, but even worth supporting.

At which particular point in the wide field of Synthetic Biology the consideration of these criteria leads to another ‒ a negative evaluation, has to be determined exclusively in reflection of concrete cases and cannot be announced ex cathedra. The limit appears to me to reside much less in the region of actual research than in cases, where absurd announcements or assertions occur about the possibilities of research ‒ to receive attention or money. Perhaps the Synthetic Biology as a very young branch of research still needs to find to an appropriate scientific self-conception, its ethos.

Considered from an ethic point of view, is it better or more reasonable to conduct antibody production in a plant rather than in an animal, assumed that both organisms (plant and animal) are able to produce the antibody at the same quality and quantity?

Concerning the question about a hierarchy of life, ethics does not have any particular, exclusive knowledge. It is rather a discipline that debates and balances existing beliefs and codes in science, in public and in culture to accomplish serenity on different courses of action. At least in our culture, but as well in others, there is a broad agreement, that apes are considered as higher beings when compared to mice, whereas mice are regarded as higher beings when compared to algae. This also mirrors in analogous legal formalities, which have to be followed for experiments on animal. It is therefore ethically plausible there must be forcing reasons to conduct experiments on animals instead conducting them on plants. Of both quality and quantity are the same in an experiment with plants an animal experiment is not plausible in my view.

Regarding the first creation account, how far should the sovereignty of the human race go? What is the researching human being considered as God's image allowed to do and where do their competencies end?

Generally spoken, the theology of creation traditionally belonged to the theory of God. It has rather been a theory about the omnipotence of God than a doctrine about the constitution of the world and the human being. Thus, the participation of mankind, as the noblest being, consisted in the doxology and adoration of God.

In modern times, however, these paradigms have changed vital as we consider the genesis as interpretation of human self-understanding and human relationship to the world. This addresses the constitutive life experience of a mankind destined for freedom, but dependent on a given world. The human beings’ essential dependency holds although there are numerous parameters to exert influence on our surroundings. Therefore, in times of modern theology, the theory of the human being as an image of God has to be understood as a theory of freedom for mankind including its constitutive, creative limitation. Hence from that idea neither derives a concept of an eternal order of being, nor a catalogue describing definite limitations of human actions or research. In contrast, it says that human actions should be related to true humanity. Modern science contributes considerably to this issue. But how exactly such can be realized has to be considered from case to case, since if a universal formula existed, there would be no need for ethics.