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AAR Annual Meeting
San Diego, CA
November 23-26, 2019

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Comparative Religious Ethics Unit
Theme: Catching up to CRISPR: Moral and Theological Responses to an Unprecedented Technology
Jung Lee, Northeastern University, Presiding
Sunday - 1:00 PM-3:00 PM

Recent advances in genetic engineering technologies, such as CRISPR, demonstrate awesome human powers to address complex biological conundrums like debilitating genetic diseases and congenital disabilities. These new technologies also prompt reconsideration of the fuzzy thresholds between health and malady, therapy and enhancement, natural and unnatural. And their capacities to alter human experiences of being human challenge theological notions of what being human means. Understanding the import of these technologies is thus urgent, biomedically, ethically and religiously. The first paper looks at the ethics inherent to the technologies involved in CRISPR; the second paper considers the ethics of the products of such technologies; and the third paper studies the very processes of deliberating about both. Instead of serial presentations, panelists offer their arguments in snippets. By reticulating their projects, they connect premises to arguments to evidence to conclusions, thereby offering a new model for comparative, or at least cross-, religious (bio)ethics.

Joel Zimbelman, California State University, Chico
Managing New Technology When Effective Control Is Lost: Facing Hard Choices

Modern genetic editing tools can accomplish more of what we want, with greater precision, faster, and cheaper than ever before. For some, significant wealth stands to be made on treatments and enhancements; the technical innovation and infrastructure to carry out such efforts is fully developed and globally decentralized; governments and international organizations lack significant oversight of such technology; and we are assuming new and unknown risks with potentially catastrophic consequences for the biosphere as we seek tangible benefits. With CRISPR and related gene editing tools, technological and synthetic control of life and heritable genome editing is an attainable goal. This paper explores why the promises of such technology are so seductive; why the cost-benefit analysis surrounding it is so indeterminate; why the technological advance of gene editing is relentless and inevitable; and what sorts of limited restraints on the development and implementation of this technology are desirable and possible.

Andrew Flescher, Center for Medical Humanities
The Virtue of Mortality

As technology’s frontiers advance, we alleviate great suffering and sorrow, if inviting, with new innovation, unwelcome side-consequences. “CRISPR,” a bacterial defense system with genome editing capabilities, is now being implemented to startling results, correcting for harmful mutations by permanently altering genes, promising to eliminate defects in whole species. Advantages notwithstanding, apart from insufficiently considered dangers precipitated by the well-intended technology, there are other moral issues to consider. What does an existence in which humans become immune to experiencing defects look like? We can surely welcome medical innovation reducing undue hardship, but is there a threshold past which our resistance to experiencing defects renders us ineligible as participants in the human condition? This paper offers such a theological and Aristotelian critique of CRISPR, arguing that it is our imperfections, including susceptibility to disease, decline due to aging, and the ephemerality of what makes life itself joyous, which also make us human.

Jonathan K. Crane, Emory University
Ethics in Search of Meta-Ethics: Jewish Bioethics of Genetic Engineering
Disagreement about the permissibility of using genetic engineering technologies like CRISPR abounds in Jewish bioethics.  Some skeptics argue that there are certain realms of knowledge that should not be pursued, while others invoke certain theological claims and principles or legal prohibitions to restrain the use of such novel techniques (e.g., Newman, Crane, Hershler, Belser).  Proponents of genetic engineering, by contrast, point to palpable goods that could obtain from these techniques as justification for their use (e.g., Dorff, Rosner, Bleich).  These arguments reveal dramatically different ethical modes reasoning: epistemology, principlism, deontology, consequentialism.  They also deploy radically different kinds of religious sources as evidence to buttress their claims: law, legend, theology, among others.  This paper analyzes these various modes of reasoning, the myriad kinds of evidence adduced, and the divergent conclusions on the way to suggest that a metaethics in Jewish deliberations on genetic engineering is urgently needed.
Business Meeting:
Jung Lee, Northeastern University