Ethics of Epiprecaution

Why doing no harm is not enough

"Children have a right to an environment that ensures that they have the best opportunity to reach and maintain their full genetic potential."

Much of our basic ethical construct has been based around "do no harm." But is this simple approach good enough? Recent advances in our understanding of how DNA expression can be modified indicates that subtle changes, beyond changing the DNA sequence, are possible. Gene expression may be silenced or suppressed, but without altering the sequence of the silenced genes, by DNA methylation or histone deacetylation. This phenomenon is now referred to as epigenetics. Subtle yet powerful epigenetic changes can be passed to the next generation.

Such epigenetic changes can occur as the result of exposure to environmental contaminants such as cigarette smoke, arsenic, alcohol, phthalates, and BPA. More importantly, studies indicate that nutrition, methyl content of diet, intake of folic acid and vitamins, or even social and maternal behavior toward offspring have epigenetic consequences. In rodents, maternal grooming or lack of grooming results in significant epigenetic changes. These studies have profound ethical implications. It is not enough for children to have a developmental environment free of chemical contaminants; there must be a loving and supportive social environment during development.

We must move beyond just "doing no harm" to "doing good." The concept of epigenetics provides the scientific and biological foundation for the necessity of "doing good." This concept could be called "epiprotection" or "epiprevention" to signify the need to move above and beyond preventing exposures to harmful material, and to creating nurturing and supportive environments. Our expanding appreciation of the influence of development on epigenetics will have profound effects on our ethical thinking.

We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that our children develop in an environment in which they can reach and maintain their full potential. Epiprevetion moves beyond just doing no harm - protecting children from toxic exposures - to one of creating a positive and supportive environment for our children.


Featured at AARP blog

Epiprecaution was featured in an AARP blog


A Limerick on Epiprecaution

Epiprecaution or The Inadequacy of Non-Maleficence

(A seven-line limerick inspired by and dedicated to Dr. Steven Gilbert)

“Do no harm,” says the Oath Hippocratic,
On this point it is very emphatic.
Yet the message subliminal
Is exceedingly minimal.
The world’s in a mess
That we have to address.
“Do some good!” is a wiser thematic.

November 17, 2011
By Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral & Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, School of Theology
Seattle Pacific University
Seattle, WA 98119