Human genetic engineering breakthrough raises ethical concerns

By Paul Stark

Shoukhrat Mitalipov is the first U.S.-based scientist known to have edited the DNA of human embryos. OHSU/KRISTYNA WENTZ-GRAFF

Shoukhrat Mitalipov is the first U.S.-based scientist known to have edited the DNA of human embryos.
OHSU/KRISTYNA WENTZ-GRAFF

Scientists in Oregon have successfully genetically modified human embryos, according to research published earlier this month. The researchers used a gene editing technique called CRISPR to repair a disease-causing mutation.

“In altering the DNA code of human embryos,” explains the MIT Technology Review, “the objective of scientists is to show that they can eradicate or correct genes that cause inherited disease, like the blood condition beta-thalassemia. The process is termed ‘germline engineering’ because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.”

Preventing disease is a noble goal. And gene editing technology has already been used in born human beings for therapeutic purposes. Genetic engineering of embryos, however, raises a number of ethical issues.

First, the research involves the creation and intentional destruction of human embryos. Human embryos are living members of our species (human beings) at the embryonic stage of their lives. Each one of us, indeed, was once an embryo.

The Oregon scientists produced more than 100 of these young humans solely in order to experiment on them. They were utilized to test gene editing methods that could possibly benefit other human beings in the future. Then they were killed.

These human beings were treated like disposable material. They were treated like things that we use rather than human beings whom we respect. That’s profoundly wrong.

The assumption of researchers engaged in embryo-destructive work is that some members of our species (like potential beneficiaries of the research) matter morally and deserve respect and compassion while other members of our species (the tiny human beings who are destroyed) don’t matter and may be used and discarded by the rest of us in any way we see fit.

But there’s no such thing as a disposable human being. We all matter.

Second, germline engineering is controversial in itself. One concern is safety. “These mutations could be passed down through the germline to future generations with unknown implications for everyone,” writes Dr. David Prentice of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. We don’t know the long-term risks of making such genetic modifications.

Another concern is more fundamental. Genetic engineering could be used not only to prevent health problems, but to choose particular favored traits (e.g., eye color, athletic skill, intellectual ability). It could be used to create so-called “designer babies.”

This is a form of eugenics—an effort to produce “enhanced” or “superior” or more desirable human beings. Indeed, Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu (among others) argues that we have a moral obligation to eugenically engineer our children.

But eugenic thinking can undermine a society’s commitment to human equality and to the dignity of human beings who are weak, sick, disabled, or “imperfect.”

David Albert Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, summarizes these moral dangers of genetically engineering human embryos. “Instead of treating existing human beings in ways that respect their rights and do not pose excessive risks to them or to future generations,” he writes, “we are manufacturing new human beings for manipulation and quality control, and experimenting on them with the aim of forging greater eugenic control over human reproduction.”

Science is powerful. Research is important. But they must always respect the dignity and rights of human beings.

Editor’s note. Mr. Stark is Communications Associate for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.