College of Law and Management Studies

Legal academic Dr Sheetal Soni’s mission as an expert in Bioethics, Medical and Reproductive Technology Law is to explore how law and science can work together to address complex issues in this niche field.

Her PhD study: Spare-part Sisters and Bred-to-order Brothers: an Ethical and Legal Analysis of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis for the Purposes of Sex Selection and Tissue Typing, aimed to contribute to the body of knowledge on bio-medicine and genetic testing. The study was supervised by Professor Anne Strode and Professor Donrich Thaldar.

‘At first glance, my research seems excessively provocative, but it considers simple questions – can it be ethically and legally justifiable to use this technology to create tissue-compatible donors, and should people have the legal right to choose the sex of their children?’ explained Soni.

The study examined whether preimplantation genetic testing methods such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis could be justifiably applied where persons using in vitro fertilisation desire to either tissue type the resultant embryos for possible tissue donation or select them on the basis of sex, and proposed a regulatory framework informed by ethics.

‘You would think that simple questions have equally simple answers, but these did not! The research had to consider the moral reactions that one can have in response to these questions in light of the existing legal provisions under national and international law. In law, the best interests of children is a fundamental principle, but my thesis had to consider the best interests of future children. It is often challenging to determine the rights of people in a given situation, but to consider the application of principles to the welfare of future people was equally difficult and exciting! My thesis showed that clear, unambiguous regulation is necessary, and provides guidance as to how this would be possible,’ added Soni.

As the South African ambassador to the Association of Ethics and Integrity (Association Ethique & Intégrité), Soni is involved in various projects which are involved in community engagement on these issues at national and international level.

‘I am constantly looking for ways in which I can use my research to benefit society, and have been approached for comment on national policy. I am hopeful that my research will make a significant impact on South African society. In April I was honoured to be invited to write a segment in an international journal which focuses solely on research in CRISPR gene editing, from the perspective of what this technology means for me and South Africa. Historically, African nations have been largely absent from these international conversations, and I try to represent the voice of Africa as much as I can so that we are more involved going forward,’ she said.

Words: Thandiwe Jumo
Photograph: Supplied