Preserving Human Potential as Freedom: A Framework for Regulating Epigenetic Harms

This Faculty Working Paper has been updated and posted within the Faculty Scholarly Works Series. It is currently available here


Epigenetics is a rapidly evolving scientific field of inquiry examining how a wide range of environmental, social, and nutritional exposures can dramatically control how genes are expressed without changing the underlying DNA. Research has demonstrated that epigenetics plays a large role in human development and in disease causation. In a sense, epigenetics blurs the distinction between “nature” and “nurture” as experiences (nurture) become a part of intrinsic biology (nature). Remarkably, some epigenetic modifications are durable across generations, meaning that exposures from our grandparents’ generation might affect our health now, even if we have not experienced the same exposures. In the same vein, current exposures could affect the health of not only individuals currently living but also future generations. Given the relative novelty of epigenetics research and the multifactorial nature of human development and disease causation, it is unlikely that conclusive proof can be established showing that particular exposures lead to epigenetic risks that manifest into specific conditions. Using the Capabilities Approach (“CA”) developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, this article argues that epigenetic risk is not merely a medical issue, but that it more generally implicates the underlying fairness and justice of our social contract. For instance, how we develop mentally or physically has a tremendous impact upon our inherent capabilities and our set of life options. The CA prompts us to ask questions such as: (1) what impact do particular epigenetic risks have on our ability to exercise free choices; (2) are these risks avoidable; and (3) how are these risks distributed across society? Due to the complex nature of epigenetic risk, tort law is predictably incapable of addressing this harm. Further, while regulatory agencies possess the statutory authority to begin addressing epigenetic harms, currently these agencies are not attuned to measure or to respond to this type of harm. This article argues that it is imperative to initiate a regulatory framework to address epigenetic risk from specific substances even if conclusive proof of disease causation cannot be established. Shifting the burden of generating epigenetic risk data to producers of suspected harmful substances serves as a start. As information concerning epigenetic risks accrues, the regulatory response should evolve concurrently. As part of a dynamic policy-making approach our goals need to encompass the following: (i) promotion of knowledge in the scientific, legal, and public domains; (ii) assessment and modification of current regulations to address preventable risk; and (iii) an overarching commitment to protect human capabilities in an equitable manner.