When I first received an invitation from Vatican City last summer to attend a global genomics conference, I did a double take. Fifty years prior, my father was among the priests who spoke out against the papal letter on birth control. At issue then was the role that a new technology—the birth control pill—posed for interpreting natural moral law.
Today, novel technologies like genomics challenge our capacity to grasp and govern our biological potential. How can and should we think about these wild new frontiers? It was an honor to be summoned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, along with colleagues from the genome sciences, ethics, law, and medicine, to address this question.
In early April, amid the stunning beauty of the frescoes and gardens of the Vatican, my colleagues and I turned off our email, pocketed our phones, and delved into the hard work of speaking to one another across disciplines, cultures, and languages.
We asked difficult questions: Why, for example, did no scientist or ethicist speak up when they learned last year that Chinese scientist He Jiankui was creating the first gene-altered babies, an act that has been condemned around the world? What, we asked, is the relationship between health and wealth, and will the cost of personalized medicine ensure it is available only to the few? What is the interplay of science and ethics, and does genomics represent a paradigm shift in science, or not?
We were frank with one another, and we disagreed, at times with zeal. I called for an approach that integrates ethical thinking into the process of innovation, rather than relegating it to an afterthought. We have sequenced the 3 billion nucleotides of the human genome, and yet we see again the riddle of the quest for knowledge: With each great discovery, we learn how little we know.
And yet. When existing moral or natural law fails to guide us, our capacity to speak to one another across often bitter divides becomes most vital. Whether in the conference rooms of the Vatican, the classrooms of this university, or our public spaces, this is the frontier of knowledge.
Jenny Reardon is a sociology professor and director of the Science & Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz.