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Embryos, Justice, and Personal Responsibility

Independent ethics committees are often charged with settling the impassioned moral debates fueled by the editing and manipulation of human embryos. And yet, despite being empowered to rule on the creation, modification, and termination of life, most review processes do not satisfy some fundamental criteria of justice.

AMSTERDAM/MONTREAL – A Chinese scientist’s claims to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies have injected a new sense of urgency into the discussions about ethics and social and personal responsibility surrounding the capacity to create and genetically modify human embryos. New technologies such as genome “base editing” have even raised the specter of widespread “embryo farming,” prompting calls for a reevaluation of how embryo research is regulated.

These issues generate impassioned debate, and to determine right and wrong, the toughest decisions are typically delegated to research ethics committees. Because these review boards are empowered to rule on the creation, modification, and termination of life, their decision-making processes should satisfy fundamental criteria of justice, including due process, public input, and personal accountability. At the moment, however, this standard is not being met.

In legal theory, “justice” comprises two components: substantive justice, which concerns a law’s content and the fairness of its application, and natural or procedural justice, which concerns the fairness and transparency of how decisions are made.