Scientists Want to Genetically Modify Human Embryos, Calling it “Essential” Research

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Sep 14, 2015   |   12:49PM   |   Washington, DC

New genetic engineering techniques are going to revolutionize medicine. They may also irrevocably change mankind if we are not careful.

No one debates using these new amazing techniques like CRISPR for individual patients to fight disease. The problem lies in the engineering of embryos. Why? Because in genetic engineering, it is not just the what, but the when that matters.

Any modification that is introduced early enough in development is a germ-line modification. That means a modification that is not just for that embryo, but for their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren and so on. Genetically engineering embryos means genetically altering every generation after.

Many scientists around the world have called for a voluntary moratorium on using gene-editing techniques on human embryos, even for therapeutic reasons. They rightfully hold that such modifications are a step too far. As the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, explains:

The concept of altering the human germline [inherited DNA] in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.

Why, you might ask, is this a “line that should not be crossed”? There are many reasons, but I like to think of it like this. I am a parent. I have the legal and moral authority to authorize invasive medical procedures for my children. Yet germ-line genetic engineering would not just be for my child, but for my grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren and so on.


Do I have the legal and moral authority to intentionally modify the genes of my great-great-great grandchild? Considering that the recent experiments in gene editing of human embryos in China that showed significant “collateral damage,” meaning unintended modifications, to the embryos’ DNA, I think the answer is a resounding, No.

There are scientists who think that research that genetically alters human embryos is not just desirable, but “essential.” The Hinxton Group, a consortium of British scientists and ethicists, has issued a report arguing tinkering with the DNA of embryos is necessary to advance science.  They do not think we should allow those embryos to be born right now, but they hold that we should still be able to pay around with their genes. Eventually, when the procedures are perfected, then we can go ahead and use them to produce genetically-modified children.

It sounds so great. Edit the genes of embryos and eradicate genetic disease forever. Who wouldn’t support that? But looking closer at the practicalities, it is clear that many embryos and fetuses will have to be sacrificed on the alter of science to make that a reality.

For example, the Hinxton Group discusses the best kind of embryos to use for gene-editing research. They reject left-over IVF embryos because they would be to “old” to make sure that the modification would be incorporated into every cell. Instead they tell us that human embryos would need to be created just for this research:

Experiments where all cells need to be modified will probably require the creation of embryos specifically for research.

And what happens after thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of embryos, are created, manipulated and destroyed to perfect gene-editing techniques? Then we could offer germ-line genetic engineering at the IVF clinic.

But again, how will this research proceed? With a careful monitoring of the growing fetus to make sure that they are developing properly:

In addition, the health and well-­being of participants, developing fetuses, and pregnancy outcomes should be monitored carefully.

I have no doubt abortion will be the “fail-safe” for any genetically-engineered baby that is not considered genetically “healthy.”

I have said it many times, but it bares repeating. There are many medical advances we could have if we treated human subjects unethically. This is one of those instances where, in its current state, we simply cannot proceed with this research in an ethical fashion. Human life will have to be created, manipulated and destroyed to make it a reality.

It seems not everyone in the public is falling for the flashing headlines about the “essential” nature of germ-line modification experiments. These comments at BBCNews give me hope that everyday people are aware of the practical and moral issues:

Many scientists who are opposing the research are not religious. I am not religious, but I require far more than a flimsy article to convince me all the moral issues should be dismissed out of hand. Sound scientific research allied to sound morals!

This technology is like communism – sounds great on paper, but when mixed with real people is just going to be a horror story.

The better approach would be to use these gene-editing techniques on patients in a non-germ-line fashion. That way each generation can not only benefit from new advances, but also give consent.