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The ambiguous nature of epigenetic responsibility

Abstract

Over the past decade, epigenetic studies have been providing further evidence of the molecular interplay between gene expression and its health outcomes on one hand, and the physical and social environments in which individuals are conceived, born and live on the other. As knowledge of epigenetic programming expands, a growing body of literature in social sciences and humanities is exploring the implications of this new field of study for contemporary societies. Epigenetics has been mobilised to support political claims, for instance, with regard to collective obligations to address socio-environmental determinants of health. The idea of a moral ‘epigenetic responsibility’ has been proposed, meaning that individuals and/or governments should be accountable for the epigenetic programming of children and/or citizens. However, these discussions have largely overlooked important biological nuances and ambiguities inherent in the field of epigenetics. In this paper, we argue that the identification and assignment of moral epigenetic responsibilities should reflect the rich diversity and complexity of epigenetic mechanisms, and not rely solely on a gross comparison between epigenetics and genetics. More specifically, we explore how further investigation of the ambiguous notions of epigenetic normality and epigenetic plasticity should play a role in shaping this emerging debate.

  • Ethics
  • Genethics
  • Genetic Information
  • Predictive Genetic Testing
  • Future child disability
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