UHLC Prof. Evans celebrates victory in historic Oxford Union Debate about DNA manipulation

Dr. Norman Fost of the University of Wisconsin, left, UHLC Professor Barbara Evans, Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu and Sir Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh prepare for mental battle over the ethics of genetic manipulation.

May 31, 2016 — University of Houston Law Center Professor Barbara Evans was part of a three-member team that clinched victory recently in a closely watched, hard-fought debate about the morality of human DNA manipulation at the Oxford Union Debating Society at Oxford University.

The topic of the May 26 debate was, "This House Believes the Manipulation of Human DNA is an Ethical Necessity."  Oxford billed the DNA manipulation debate as "historic" in a year when rapid advances in gene editing and genome synthesis have suddenly thrust mankind into an era when people will be able to write, edit, re-write, and ultimately control their own genetic destinies.

Evans, a solid supporter of gene editing and gene synthesis research, was placed in the difficult position of having to argue against the motion.  "That's what they do: they turn the tables on you and make you argue against whatever you are known for believing," she said. "It's brilliant. It forces you to have thoughts you never would have thought otherwise."

Evans was teamed with Dr. Norman Fost, professor emeritus of pediatrics and director of the medical ethics program at the University of Wisconsin, and with Oxford student debater Dr. Rahul Gandhi, a young medical doctor and monk regarded as a rising star in a technology-enabled movement to revolutionize healthcare access for the world's poorest rural populations. Gandhi is at Oxford this year pursuing an MBA degree.

Professor Barbara Evans plots strategy with her teammate, Dr. Rahul Gandhi.
Professor Barbara Evans plots strategy with her teammate, Dr. Rahul Gandhi.

Fortunately, Evans said, the motion was so broadly worded that it left space for her and her team to defeat it:  "You can love ice cream and think ice cream has the potential to benefit mankind, without insisting that there is an ethical necessity for everybody to eat ice cream," Evans pointed out. "That's the line we steered: DNA manipulation is a promising technology but it is overdramatic to call it an ethical necessity."

"It was an uphill battle," Evans noted, "The pre-debate Twitter poll was running 51-49 percent against us, and we were up against an all-star team."  The team in support of the motion included Sir Ian Wilmut, famous for cloning Dolly the Sheep and now chair of the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, along with Oxford's noted moral philosopher Julian Savulescu, and student debater Lynda Troung, a fast-rising star in RNA research.

After the debate, the votes had shifted to 53-47 percent in favor of the position argued by the Evans/Fost/Gandhi team. The debate will be available for viewing in early June on the Oxford Union's YouTube channel, which has garnered 29 million views since being re-launched in a new format earlier this year.

The Oxford Union is the oldest and most influential student-run organzation in the world. Its Thursday debates began in 1823 as an act of defiance at a time when free speech was under threat in England.
Past speakers at the Oxford Union have included Presidents Reagan, Nixon and Carter, Nancy Pelosi, David Cameron, Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Anna Wintour, Michael Jackson, Sir Elton John, Shakira, Morgan Freeman, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Buzz Aldrin.

"It was the privilege of a lifetime to become part of this amazing tradition," Evans said.  

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