In the UK Daily Mail Christopher Gyngell, a research fellow in neuroethics at Oxford University, argues that we are morally obligated to use new DNA editing techniques like CRISPR, which can precisely edit the human genome, to cure genetic disease. He asserts that we must test the technique in human embryos with the hope of eradicating mutations that cause disease. He writes:
Although the reality of human genetic modification may be a surprise, we should resist making any knee-jerk reactions or judgements.
Unfortunately this is exactly what has happened.
Many, including the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, have labelled this research as unethical and called for a worldwide moratorium on it.
But far from being wrong, the research on human gene editing is ethically imperative.
Then he argues that resistance to using these techniques in human embryos are the result of “bad arguments, empty rhetoric and personal interests.” He concludes, “It is a time for reason, not emotion.”
Ignoring the fact that in the last sentence Gyngell mentions the “booty” (as in plunder) that the UK can reap if it moves ahead in the editing of human embryos, I would like to bring some “reason” to the discussion.
In one sense Gyngell is absolutely right. We do have a moral imperative to use CRISPR technology to help patients with genetic disease. But he does not make an important distinction that I will. It is not just how genetic engineering is done that matters. The when is very important as well.
Gyngell sets up a scenario where to help heal genetic disease, the only way to do that is to tinker with human embryos. This mean that any edits made to the embryo’s DNA will not just be for that embryo, but for that embryo’s children and grandchildren. Making a modification so early in development means the change will be incorporated into the germ cells (sperm and egg) of the child. This means future generations would be forced to carry that modification as well.
The Chinese scientists who recently attempted to modify the DNA of human embryos reported that in several places mutations occurred where they were not intended. If a child is born with unintended mutations introduced in the embryonic stage, they could not help but pass those on to their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Gyngell blithely dismisses the unforeseeable affects of using CRISPR so early in human development. He writes, “Just because something has unpredictable effects doesn’t mean it should be banned.” I think Gyngell forgets that there are generations of people that will have to live their wholes lives subjected to the “unpredictable effects” of the intentional genetic engineering performed on their ancestors. We are talking about human beings, whole families, here not lab rats.
Gyngell is right that CRISPR does have great potential to relieve suffering and do great good, but human embryos are not the only humans we can use CRISPR on.
Instead of messing around with human life in its earliest and most vulnerable stage and possibly introducing unwanted mutations that will be inherited from generation to generation, we can use CRISPR on existing patients with genetic disease. The modifications made on children and adults would not be ones that would be passed on. The genetic engineering would be for that one patient minimizing risks to a single generation. We can have the benefits of CRISPR technology for genetic disease without the risk to future generations.
CLICK LIKE IF YOU’RE PRO-LIFE!
The objection to using CRISPR technology in embryos is not an emotional one as Gyngell implies. It is a reasoned one based in the long standing right of patients to have informed consent. Parents can legally consent for their own children. But do we morally have the right to consent to invasive genetic manipulation for our grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren?
We can use CRISPR ethically and safely to help patients living with genetic disease now without subjecting future generations to risky genetic modifications that may go very wrong.
To me it seems the emotional argument comes from Gyngell. He wants to forget the real dangers and move forward regardless. His way makes generations into genetic experiments. I am sure there are lots of medical advances we could have if we treated human subjects unethically. This is one of those times. Are we going to subject generation after generation to genetic experimentation or will we use techniques like CRISPR to heal patients living with genetic disease now? I believe the latter is the more reasoned approach.