For someone who has caused a worldwide uproar over what many fellow scientists consider an ethical outrage, He Jiankui of China spent a remarkable amount of time discussing his work — which he claims led to the births of the first babies whose genomes had been edited when they were IVF embryos — with bioethicists, policy experts, and social scientists.
Two of them are father and son: Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, a member of the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics in the early 2000s, and J. Benjamin Hurlbut of Arizona State University, a biomedical historian. The Hurlbuts have discussed the ethics of human genome editing with He more than any other scholars in the West and probably the world.
Though neither Hurlbut supports what He has done, both came away from these conversations with an impression of He as a well-meaning and thoughtful scientist — and, as the younger Hurlbut put it, not a “rogue.”
He asked Hurlbut whether opponents of such research in the U.S. were members of fringe groups, or reflected a majority view. “He wanted to understand what that was about,” Hurlbut said.
“I knew where he was heading and tried to give him a sense of the practical and ethical implications,” Hurlbut said. “But he kept returning to the good that could be done.”
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