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Hateful politics infiltrate human genome editing debate in France

Posted by Elliot Hosman on June 29th, 2016

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A recent campaign calling for a ban on “transgenic” human embryos was launched by one of France’s most prominent organizations fighting for “science”-backed “one-man-one-woman” families, and the exclusion of all other forms.


“Stop GMO Baby: Yes to therapeutic progress, no to transgenic embryos” (image via Alliance VITA).

Since March 24, more than 15,500 people in France have signed a petition started by Alliance VITA declaring (translated from French*):

“I ask my country to engage with all urgency to obtain an international moratorium – that is to say an immediate stop – on the genetic modification of human embryos, especially via the technique CRISPR-cas9.”

*all French materials and quotations presented in English in this post have been translated using Google and my college-level French. Suggested revisions to translations are welcome and will be noted. Alliance VITA offers some materials on its website in English.

In that time, volunteers have canvassed cities around France, handing out brochures explaining the breakthrough CRISPR genome editing technology, and tweeting pictures of their advocacy using Flickr and the hashtags: #StopBébéOGM, #ProtectHumanity, and #CRISPR-Cas9.

Alliance VITA’s opposition to using human gene editing for reproduction is widely shared, including by my organization, the Center for Genetics and Society. But a closer look at the Stop GMO Baby campaign in France reveals a troubling and at times explicitly hateful politics infiltrating the human genome editing debate. A polarization of the conversation about heritable human genetic modification along “right to life” and “natural family” fault lines threatens to derail public conversations about responsible regulation of science and medicine that serves the public interest.

Paul also recently flagged Alliance VITA’s Stop GMO Baby campaign, cautioning:

“I’m concerned that these campaigns that specifically target CRISPR could have negative effects on the freedom of us scientists to do responsible CRISPR research in the lab. … at least some of the motivation seems to be related to a “right-to-life” perspective. “

I share this concern, and we’re not alone. In a February article titled Gene editing: The next frontier in America’s abortion wars, the “last scientist in Congress” U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) told Politico’s Sarah Karlin that he’d been warned by scientists that “‘this issue will get all tied up over the abortion debate,’ interfering with the creation of ‘good policy decisions.’”

The Stop GMO Baby Campaign

Alliance VITA’s campaign materials on CRISPR take as their central point that CRISPR-Cas9 is an ethically neutral and promising technology that could help gene therapy, but that any use in human embryos or gametes is a red line no researcher in the world should cross. In their other words: “GM babies? No!” Here are some examples of their slogans and statements:

  • Campaign slogan: “CRISPR-Cas9: Yes to Therapeutic Progress, No to Transgenic Embryo!” (March 24, 2016) [Brochure PDF]
  • On February 16, 2016, Alliance VITA Research Director Blanche Streb stated on Catholic television: “The technique poses no ethical problems on its own, it’s the application that does.” (YouTube)
  • Alliance VITA General Delegate-CEO Tugdual Derville commenting on Kathy Niakan’s application to the HFEA in January 2016:

“Although this technique might be promising for genetic therapy, Tugdual Derville reminds us that when applied to the human embryo: “the danger is to cause the emergence of custom-made babies, with pre-selected genetic criteria, heritable modifications, with unknown consequences for future generations. The human genome is part of our most precious “heritage of humanity.” Its integrity must absolutely be preserved for future generations.”

In March, Alliance VITA released a study they conducted finding that 76% of French people support gene therapy, but oppose using CRISPR to genetically modify embryos in vitro. Some of their data conform to a number of other recent studies. But the slipperiness of public opinion polls that Pete Shanks describes in a recent survey of public opinion of human heritable genetic modification is on point here, as the framing of questions may lead to an overstatement of the sanctity of the embryo for the people who polled their opposition.

On April 7, France’s National Assembly Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (l’OPECST) held a hearing on issues raised by CRISPR (program, in French). Alliance VITA Research Director Blanche Streb testified, advocated for an international ban on embryo experiments, and noted that her organization was also concerned by “3 person IVF” mitochondrial replacement technologies in the UK. While Alliance VITA’s media statements and materials mention threats posed by eugenics and transhumanism, their stance is clearly that all experiments on embryos should cease. They appeal to UNESCO’s “genome as commons” as authority, interpreting its call for a collective responsibility to future generations as including the sanctity of the embryo.

La Manif for whom?

Pictured L to R: Xavier Bongibault (celebrated by some as a “gay voice against gay marriage”), Frigide Barjot (former celebrity face of La Manif pour tous), and Tugdual Derville (CEO of Alliance VITA) (image via Flickr/Serge klk).

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Alliance VITA was a leader of the first-ever rallies of a French movement called “La Manif pour tous” (the Strike for all), a coalition of anti-abortion, anti-LGBT organizations (many professing the Catholic faith) that organized a very visible campaign to oppose the fight for “marriage for all” in France from 2012 to 2014.

For a United States audience, visible opposition to gay and lesbian couples getting married is not novel, although public opinion polls show increasing acceptance. But many the world over were taken aback by the size of the crowds marching in Paris in early 2013 holding blue, pink, and white signs that read “One man, one woman, we don’t lie to children!” The number of marchers, which was hotly debated, was between 150,000 and 1 million.

Despite the jaw-dropping scale of these protests, President François Hollande signed a parliamentary law establishing the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry and adopt in May 2013. The following year in August 2014, the French government expanded abortion access so women no longer have to argue “distress” to access a procedure, and agreed to pay for the procedures, at least most of the time.

These recent events could sound like a bell twice tolled for those seeking to narrow French and international discourse on and regulation of what counts as “family” and “life.” But Alliance VITA has rebounded from these two developments by capitalizing on the grassroots power amassed with La Manif pour tous, focusing on other issues related to death and conception (e.g. surrogacy, embryo selection) and launching the new “citizen’s campaign” against CRISPR experiments. Two recent research reports on CRISPR research using nonviable human zygotes have catalyzed the debate about certain cellular masses of particular interest to this movement: “des embryons.”

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Crowds march in Paris in 2013 to oppose extending marriage and adoption to LGBT couples (image via Wikimedia).

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Flying Colors Wave

Frigide Barjot, a devout Catholic, noted in 2012 that the three colors of La Manif pour tous’ protests represented blue for men, pink for women, and white for LGBT people who were included to show that “they were loved by protestors, who were not homophobic but rather wanted to protect the very idea of ‘family’ and ‘civilization.’” Barjot’s outsider status compared to the movement’s leadership of traditional Catholic and far right political groups led to her replacement in 2013.

Left. La Manif pour tous protest in Strasbourg on February 2, 2013 (image via Wikimedia).
Right. La Manif pour tous protest in 2013 (image via Flickr/Arslan).

In contrast, the new CRISPR-related campaign takes on the cautionary yellow of GMO campaigns across Europe (stock photo search). France, along with Germany, is one of the most stalwart opponents of GMO foods in Western Europe, creating a huge constituency to draw upon for Stop GMO Baby.

Left.“GMO, I don’t want any.” Greenpeace protestors march in Montpellier in May 2015 (image via Flickr/Pete).
"92 groups mobilized in defense to inform the public of the issues posed by CRISPR-Cas9.” (image via Twitter).

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The Science Cited by Alliance VITA

In its 2012 coverage of Alliance VITA and its prominent role in the La Manif pour tous protests, VICE noted with some irony the peculiar sight of “secular opposition to gay marriage”:

“The French Republic was founded on the ideas of equality and a French concept called laïcité—the complete absence of religion in governmental affairs. This means political discourse in France must be entirely free of religious rhetoric…battling civil rights, not with religious ideals, but with science, sociology, and cold, reductive rationality.”

In other words, Alliance Vita needed to invoke science to support a campaign premised on denying gay and lesbian marriage and adoption rights. So the group used a widely cited – and widely discreditedNew Family Structures Study by American sociologist Mark Regnerus on the “differences” seen in children raised by same-sex couples. The study is riddled with methodological problems, and was denounced by the American Sociological Association and 200 scientists and doctors in a 2012 open letter. But Alliance VITA’s “scientific” evidence for the superiority of traditional families goes beyond the debunked significance of Regnerus’s interviews.

Tugdual Derville, CEO and General Delegate of Alliance VITA, led the group’s March 24 press conference, and coordinates media statements with Research Director Blanche Streb. Derville is currently on tour for his newly published book Human Ecology. In various French media venues, he attacks what he refers to as “gender theory feminism,” and argues for biologically determined and distinct gender roles for men and women in family creation, education, and society. It’s what he calls the “sexus,” the natural “family ecosystem” which depends on a “Father-Mother” distinction to prevent the “self-made man.” Derville equates transhumanists with animal rights’ activists, eugenicists with feminists, and the “radical cult of youth” with the “disconnected gerontocracy.” It’s all an indistinguishable bunch of individualistic nonsense to him. “In settling their accounts with their own personal stories, their advocates endanger us all,” he states in a recent interview.

* * *

The Time of Man: for a human ecology revolution
(image via
Tugdual Derville’s website).

Some French critics of Human Ecology have accused Derville of “green-washing” his traditional ideological fare. Associate professor of French studies at MIT Bruno Perrau has studied and written about La Manif pour tous for years, and commented on the recent campaign via email:

“[T]alking about ecology allows religious arguments to appear in the public debate in a more acceptable way (that is to say as secular arguments). My sense is that there’s no thorough investment on environmental issue (it is mostly used strategically).”

University of Chicago law professor Mary Anne Case, a U.S. expert on the Catholic Church’s rhetoric, doesn’t see contradictions in the environmental packaging of Alliance Vita’s various campaigns:

“Human ecology” is a favorite framework of Benedict XVI, who used it to warn of the potentially devastating effects of what he called the “ideology of gender.”

Case points to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment (welcomed for its critique of inequality, capitalism, and human-caused global warming), which also talks disapprovingly of embryo research:

“[I]t is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development.” Laudato si’, par. 136.

Case noted in an email, “Seen from within the mindset of those Catholic writers invoking the need to safeguard human ecology in their campaigns against a whole host of sexual rights and law reform efforts, religious and secular motivations openly go hand in hand in the same direction.”

The “secular science v. religious ideology” binary can get in the way of acknowledging that people across the religious and political spectrum have voiced concern about the prospect of using a new generation of genome editing tools to produce altered embryos for the purpose of human reproduction. But the Pope’s and Derville’s framing, in which environmental advocacy somehow mandates accommodating the idea that human embryos should be accorded the status of human lives, doesn’t sit well with me either; it reminds me of a “zero-sum” game, when we need to be in a “grow the pie” mindset given our volatile political climate.

* * *

Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home (image via

Dangerous Political Territory

Many voices from France have joined in international mourning for the 49 slain and 53 injured victims of the massacre at queer dance club Pulse’s Latin Night in #Orlando on June 12, 2016. In the multi-dimensional public investigation that has followed, a number of tweets using the hashtag #Manifpourtous called out Alliance VITA and its allies for their role in inciting homophobic violence around the world. On June 26, Pope Benedict called on Christians to apologize to gay people and other marginalized groups.

Back in 2012 Alliance VITA and the La Manif pour tous coalition happily cited the Regnerus study, but they weren’t the only ones citing the flawed sociological research promoting homophobic laws. Among others leveraging the “science” to wage their defense of the “natural family” was nearly every American organization opposed to LGBT rights, including the controversial National Organization for Marriage.

One of Alliance VITA’s biggest admirers is Brian Brown, National Organization for Marriage’s president. Brown spent time with La Manif pour tous campaigners in France and this year was elected as President of the World Congress of Families. WCF is an almost 20-year-old effort to organize international spaces for conservative organizers and lawmakers from around the world to collaborate on an anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, “natural family” agenda to support legislation in multiple jurisdictions. (I recommend this historical overview by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Supporting bans on marriage equality is tame in comparison to WCF’s other ongoing efforts. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks the organization as part of its Hatewatch program because of its support of discriminatory legislation, including “gay propaganda” bills in Russia (where regulations recently banned transgender people from driving), “kill the gays” bills in various African countries, and for its ideologically narrow view of “healthy families” used to justify government interference into people’s sex and family lives. WCF is also currently opposing “UN entities’” efforts to expand the UN’s definition of family to include same-sex couples.

“Uniting Leaders Worldwide in Defense of Family, Faith, and Freedom”, World Congress of Families 2016 (images via Eventbrite 1, 2).

The WCF’s 10th international convening in May 2016 was held in Tblisi, Georgia, where it bestowed honors on former president George W. Bush. He declined to appear, but sent a letter saying,

“I commend your efforts to recognize the importance of families in building nations. Your work improves many lives and makes the world better.”

The event drew far right politicians from around the world, including WCF representative to France Fabrice Sorlin, and granddaughter of French National Front party founder and youngest French MP in history, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

The founding family of the far right National Front party in France, pictured L to R: Marine Le Pen, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen (grey suit), and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (images via Wikimedia).

Marion and her aunt, Marine Le Pen, have been the “new face” packaging for the far-right party’s xenophobic campaign slogans such as “France for the French.” Before the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016 when the UK voted to leave the European Union, Marine Le Pen supported a British “Leave” vote to spark a “chain reaction of decomposition” of the EU.

In addition to a shared support for a British-Exit, Le Pen’s bid in the French regional elections last year was eerily Trump-like. She beat former presidents Nickolas Sarkozy and François Hollande in the first round of the regional parliamentary race in December 2015, but lost in the second. (For many, the rise of Trump in U.S. politics echoes the rise of the extreme right in the British and European contexts; others argue that the Trump phenomenon is distinctly American in nature.)

As the world wrestles to reconcile global warming, unprecedented inequality, refugee crises, and mass shootings, and now the potential for a new era in European politics, how do we confront the political extremism bubbling up in reaction as we engage in sensitive policy debates that shape the world we will leave to future generations?

Ongoing political and religious controversies over abortion and embryo research may fuel partisan ways of thinking and reactionary policies that fail to serve the public interest in this arena. As increasing awareness about CRISPR takes shape, it will be important to be clear about the many “non-embryo” reasons to be critical of some emerging human biotechnologies. We cannot let the far-right capture the conversation about the social and ethical issues surrounding heritable human genetic modification technologies.

The development of new genetic techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 demands a reflective debate on the sort of future world we want to build, the meaning of being human, and how far we’ll go to engineer individuals to fit the society we currently have. My hope is that this debate can spark discussions about deep structural social changes that we already know are needed to improve the lives of communities around the world.

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This article was cross-posted on The Niche, UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler's blog.

CORRECTION: July 14, 2016

This article was cross-posted on The Niche, where a reader commented: "Great piece, thanks. Just a correction regarding the Dec. 2015 election in France: this was not presidential election (which will happen in 2017) but elections to regional parliaments. The far-right party of Mrs LePen indeed registered a political victory by leading the first round in many regions, but the party’s candidates including Mrs LePen lost in all regions during the second round of elections." The blog has been edited to reflect that Marine Le Pen beat Nicolas Sarkozy and Françoise Hollande in the first round of France's regional elections, not a presidential election. See more.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

UK Researchers Now Say Three-Person Embryo Technique Doesn't Work; Propose New Method

Posted by Jessica Cussins, Biopolitical Times guest contributor on June 8th, 2016

Douglass Turnbull and Mary Herbert, Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research,
Newcastle University.

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In February 2015, the UK decided to create a controversial exception to its law against any form of human germline modification to allow the creation of “three-person embryos” to prevent the transmission of some mitochondrial disease. Then and now, unresolved scientific concerns remained, and many people have been waiting to see whether the science will indeed come through.

Adding to anxiety to see these data is the enormous global attention on a different technology proposed for human genetic modification: the gene editing technique CRISPR, and current controversy over varied attempts to try it on human embryos.

However, there is only one central place where the mitochondrial research is being carried out in the UK – the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University. But despite opening its doors in 2012 and encouraging excitement about the importance of  this research, none of the specific research requested by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) had been published until now.

Today, that changed. Well-known Newcastle researchers including Mary Herbert and Douglass Turnbull have just published an update to their six-year-old Nature paper, which originally described how their preferred form of mitochondrial replacement – pronuclear transfer (PNT) – “has the potential to prevent the transmission of mtDNA disease in humans.”

Shockingly, their new paper reports that the proof-of-concept studies upon which everyone had been basing their enthusiasm “were not well tolerated by normally fertilized zygotes.”

In other words, the scientific basis for the controversial UK law and HFEA policy change turns out to have been unfounded. It did not work.

The researchers were able to develop an alternative method however, which may still justify the technique as a potential method to reduce the transmission of mitochondrial disease from mother to child. Their new paper (behind a paywall) is optimistically titled, “Towards clinical application of pronuclear transfer to prevent mitochondrial DNA disease.”

Initial media coverage has run with this alternative ePNT and downplayed the additional concerns raised by the new research

Three-person babies IVF technique ‘safe’ [BBC]
UK scientists find new 3-parent IVF technique safe in lab tests [Reuters]
‘Three-parent baby’ success could see trials in two years [New Scientist]

This overly positive characterization is perhaps understandable given the small but eager group of patients who wish to use this technology to decrease the chances of passing on mitochondrial disease to their offspring.

Yet as of this writing, only The Telegraph is giving weight to the range of unknowns still at play:

'Three parent baby' technique could still pass on mutated DNA, study shows

A more cynical headline for this news may be:

Scientists effectively distract press and public from the dangers inherent to the controversial technique they promised wasn’t unsafe by introducing a new technique promised not to be unsafe.

The new paper describes the alternative method as early PNT or ePNT because the researchers found it works better to transplant the pronuclei from one embryo into another immediately after meiosis rather than right before the first mitotic division. In 79% of the resulting embryos, less than 2% of the unhealthy mitochondria of the first embryo had transferred over to the new embryo, which might be enough to help a child avoid symptoms of mitochondrial disease. On the other hand, it might not. In decidedly less confident language than has often been used up to this point, the researchers conclude, “PNT has the potential to reduce the risk of mtDNA disease, but it may not guarantee prevention.”

Part of the reason for this caution is because of a Cell Stem Cell paper published just days earlier by US researchers including Dieter Egli called “Genetic Drift Can Compromise Mitochondrial Replacement by Nuclear Transfer in Human Oocytes.” This paper highlights their findings that even small amounts of carryover mitochondria can cause “genetic drift,” which can “lead to the restoration of the original donor mitochondrial genotype” and undercut any positive outcome from the technique. They suggest “although vertical inheritance of mtDNA is not required, it is critical to ensure inheritance of a single maternal mtDNA lineage.”

This paper led to Nature saying “Three-person embryos may fail to vanquish mutant mitochondria,” and stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler declaring, “The data in it also in my view strongly make the case for now there should be no human clinical efforts using 3-person IVF for the foreseeable future.” Knoepfler also contributed a helpful headline to the coverage today: New Herbert lab Nature paper reinforces mitochondrial replacement Achilles heel.

As in 2010 when Turnbull and Herbert first published research using PNT in nonviable embryos, the conclusions from these recent data is still "we're working on it" not "this is safe." Such data support previous warnings from scientists, and the fact that we are still unsure about the extent of the role of mitochondria in the overall functioning of our bodies.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Perhaps that humility is the best path forward if we are ever to seriously contemplate bringing new lives into the world this way. And maybe also that policymakers should not be so easily won over by over-zealous promises of science not yet confirmed.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Composite image via Wellcome Trust

Unheard Publics in the Human Genome Editing Policy Debate

Posted by Elliot Hosman on June 8th, 2016

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Though the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing platform is only some four years old, universities and industry are racing forward with a range of research projects, including in human embryos. Given the speed of uptake, and the recent approval of non-clinical experiments with embryos in a number of countries, many are wary of this kind of CRISPR research because it could so easily pave the path to high-tech fertility clinics vending eugenic upgrades.

A vast diversity of publics, communities, and stakeholders are deeply concerned about this prospect of heritable human genetic modification. Yet, a recent comment in JAMA Forum by Eli Adashi seeks to funnel this textured landscape of opinion into a tale of two cities in an international biomedical arms race in which the American research establishment is falling behind.

Adashi frames this battle royale as "Divergent US vs UK Human Embryo Research Policies" in light of the HFEA's decision to license Kathy Niakan's CRISPR research with viable human embryos. (Her research program has yet to begin. It recently received a second round of ethical approval to use surplus embryos from IVF clinics, but those may take months to secure.)

On one side, Dr. Adashi places a mostly British cohort of pioneers, including two groups of research charities and stem cell researchers that have separately gone on record advocating for clinical research into genetically modifying embryos for human reproduction, once certain thresholds are met. He writes:

Many UK scientists quoted in the lay and professional media welcomed the HFEA decision. Professor Sir Robert Lechler, MB, ChB, PhD, President of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, offered that “studies such as [that proposed by Dr Niakan], that focus on asking basic questions about human-embryo development, are needed to help answer the many scientific and ethical questions remaining in this field.” Similar sentiments were echoed by other UK-based groups, including the Hinxton Group, an international consortium on stem cells, ethics, and law, the Wellcome Trust, an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health, and the Medical Research Council, a leading funder of medical research. Some prominent US scientists also spoke approvingly of such work going forward.

On the other side, he places two lone voices termed “bioethics groups,” CGS included, whose concerns are vaguely glossed:

In contrast, some bioethics groups on both sides of the Atlantic criticized the HFEA’s action. Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, in Berkeley, California, warned that genome editing poses “dire safety and societal risks.” Calum MacKellar, PhD, of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, in Edinburgh, said that “allowing the gene editing of embryos opens the road to genetically modifying all the descendants of a person as well as full blown eugenics which was condemned by all civilised societies after the Second World War.”

A good number of bioethicists have spoken up in the human gene editing debate to voice concerns around informed consent of future generations, the sharing of risks and benefits, and the distributional justice problem of inequitable access to genetically enhanced reproduction. CGS' concerns with heritable genetic modification include those and others: they extend far beyond problems inherent to the individual doctor-patient relationship. As a public interest organization advocating for human biotechnology to serve the common good, we are deeply concerned about the social justice implications of moving forward with the human re-engineering project of germline gene editing under the mislabeled auspices of medicine and science.

What's on the international policy table is the potential creation of genetically modified humans. The substantive issues at hand strike at deeply held values across nations and cultures, including commitments to social justice, human rights, and the public interest. Yet many aspects of the futures that CRISPR would enable, and of the context of unprecedented health and wealth inequalities in which it would be deployed, are not being discussed democratically.

Who is most vulnerable of being “edited out” of future generations, and why aren’t their voices at the policy table? Groups and voices dangerously under-represented or missing in these conversations include those under consideration for editing: disability rights and justice, racial justice, reproductive rights and justice, public health, global health, environmental justice, religion and spirituality, LGBTQI rights and justice, and indigenous rights and justice. How would the unquantifiable lives and interests that these voices represent be affected by the fantasies and projects of a technology-enabled-and-optimistic few?

Recent public opinion studies show that a majority supports the development of accessible gene therapies for consenting patients. By contrast, the polled public is overwhelmingly opposed to genetically modifying human embryos for reproduction.

The history of eugenics and its goal to competitively optimize human reproduction is a century-old, and deeply fraught, enterprise. Without a federal law banning human germline modification, the United States is vulnerable to private interests moving forward uninhibited. This could usher in a new form of high-tech eugenics that would exacerbate existing inequalities, and create new forms of discrimination. We cannot proceed with germline interventions for human reproduction without imperiling the existence of a just and sustainable world for future generations.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via Free Stock

On Cyborgs and Gene Editing: Lessons from Orphan Black

Posted by Jessica Cussins on June 1st, 2016

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The latest season of Orphan Black takes a cue from Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” to probe the boundaries of identity, humanity, and perfection, as it reminds us that mainstream genetic and reproductive technologies are closer to the show’s more radical technologies than we might think.

In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” originally published in 1985, Donna Haraway describes a cyborg as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”

The clones of the BBC America television show Orphan Black seem to fit that definition well – they all possess snippets of synthetic DNA entwined in their genome, and often exist in an at least partially fictitious reality designed to better control their actions. However, the latest season explores the possibilities and meanings of cyborg-ness in greater depth. Fittingly, each episode is named with a quote from Haraway’s work: “The Collapse of Nature,” “Transgressive Border Crossing,” “The Stigmata of Progress,” “From Instinct to Rational Control,” “Human Raw Material,” and “The Scandal of Altruism.” And as Orphan Black engages with what it means to be a cyborg, this fourth season also situates itself in the ongoing conversation on new human genetic and reproductive technologies in the real world, including genome editing.


Neolution is the name of the show’s pro-eugenic movement, whose goal is to take control of human evolution. In the first episode of the season, a character reads from the book on Neolution: “The individual can only begin the journey to the extraordinary by casting off the genetically mandated human shell.” Sarah retorts that Cosima calls this stuff “sound bite science.”

The season reveals one of Neolution’s experimental genetic technologies: a synthetic worm-like organism implanted into people’s cheeks to act as an ongoing gene therapy delivery system. We find out that Sarah has had one implanted against her will and knowledge. But just as some transhumanists in real life choose to implant a range of devices in their bodies for numerous reasons, some Neolutionists in the show have opted for the “cheek worm” in order to produce a desired alteration to their body.

Whereas previous episodes have established a clear distinction between the clones as non-consenting research subjects and the Neolutionists as willing bio-hackers, the line between coercion and choice over one’s bodily autonomy is increasingly blurred in this season. In a particularly memorable moment, Cosima holds the decaying head of former Neolution leader Dr. Aldous Leaky to investigate his still-thriving “cheek worm” and asks, “Who’s the science now, bitch?”

In another heart-chilling scene, one of the clones agrees to withhold potential treatment from a child diagnosed with a genetic disorder who was made from her own cells, declaring the data learned from the disease’s progression to be more valuable for humanity than saving the child.

A more broadly relevant way in which the distinction between coercion and choice is tested comes in the form of a cutting-edge fertility program called BrightBorn. By this point of the show we know that Neolution’s leaders have extensive influence over the cloning programs; now we learn that cloning is only one mechanism of reproductive control in which they are interested. An acquaintance of suburbanite Alison has finally gotten pregnant thanks to BrightBorn Technologies, without having any idea that there may be a link between the company and more nefarious ends. Although BrightBorn keeps itself out of the public eye and does not publish its scientific findings, it is notably available to anyone willing to pay. BrightBorn is run by Neolutionists, but is marketed to all. In language reminiscent of the fertility clinic scene in GATTACA, the BrightBorn ad declares:

We can provide you with a healthy and thriving newborn, but why stop there? All of our children are born stronger and healthier. At BrightBorn Technologies we’re making the world a better place, one baby at a time.

Cosima points out:

Mainstream reproductive technology: it’s like a whole new side to Neolution.”

After sneaking into Brightborn’s facilities, Cosima not only finds a variety of experimental technologies ranging from embryo screening and selection to illegal germline modification techniques, but also what seem to be well-paid surrogate mothers under continuous surveillance while carrying the trial embryos. It is apparent that not all of the experiments go as planned, as Cosima witnesses the birth of a severely deformed baby in the limited time she is there. Afterwards, Cosima (italics) discusses what she saw with none other than the woman who created her:

“These are human beings that you’re tinkering with. Trial and error without consent.”

“These carriers are very well compensated.”

“And does that justify the baby that I saw? Look at me, I’m sick. I never gave permission for any of this.”

“No one gives permission to be born. I created you as a beautiful baseline to unlock the mysteries of the human genome.”

In a later conversation with the leader of BrightBorn who is competing for control of Neolution, Cosima learns that some people find cloning to be a crude mechanism for evolutionary control compared to gene editing:

“We don’t need your baseline. We can fix people now.”

“You can’t perfect the human genome. You can’t know what perfect is.”

“I do know. I was born sick.”

“I’m sick too. That doesn’t justify this.”

Season Four of Orphan Black also introduces the role of commercial genetic ancestry testing companies within the overarching project of understanding genetic identity, as Felix finds a “real [genetically related] sister” using an online DNA service. This poses a strange juxtaposition with the non-traditional clone “sestras,” as well as with Sarah, who was raised by a foster parent with Felix and who resents the implication that she is somehow less related than this “real sister” whom Felix has only just met.

Orphan Black has always been good at pushing the boundaries of what family and sexuality look like. The show has also made a move that destabilizes binary biological sex. Given Haraway’s claim that “the cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world,” it is fitting that we learn that the original DNA for both the female and male lines of clones came from a single chimeric woman.

Interestingly, even as everyone is enormously concerned with the well-being of “the original” in order to access her valuable DNA, she keeps secret the fact that she has leukemia. Perhaps she sees this as a way of reclaiming her death for her own, a kind of bodily autonomy she has been denied in her life.  Sadly, she is murdered in episode six, and so she is unable to have even that. But her desire to go untreated for her cancer is an interesting reminder that we often make different decisions when it comes to our own body than when it comes to the bodies of others.

This latest season of Orphan Black encourages us to question whether the kinds of technologies and ideologies presented in the show are less radical than they seem, and are in fact already with us in more innocuous forms today. Now that we have effectively donned smartphones as additional appendages and live in a world mediated by algorithms, to what degree are we all already cyborgs? And with the increasing normalization of assisted reproductive technologies to select and possibly even modify embryos, how far are we really from Neolutionism?

The quest towards perfection is a powerful narrative – in the show as in real life. But as the characters in Orphan Black prove repeatedly, biology and identity are marvelously complex and never compliant with even a single notion of perfection. And thank goodness for that. The show would be a lot less compelling if the clones really were all the same. 

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

See also:

Image via BBC

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