Scientists Call for Ban on Genetic Engineering of Unborn Babies and “Designer Babies”

Bioethics   Micaiah Bilger   Mar 14, 2019   |   6:48PM    Washington, DC

A group of international scientists is calling for a global moratorium on the genetic engineering of human beings as fears about parents creating “designer babies” grow.

Their open letter, published in Nature on Wednesday, urges countries to ban the practice after reports surfaced late last year about a Chinese scientist who genetically altered the DNA of twin girls before they were born in November. The letter noted that the widely-condemned experiment highlighted the “growing interest in proposals for genetic enhancement of humans.”

“We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children,” they wrote.

They said a global moratorium is “necessary” while the world wrestles with the possible consequences of such human experimentation.

“By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban,” their letter continued. “Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.”

About 30 countries currently prohibit human germline editing, according to the scientists.

“To be clear, our proposed moratorium does not apply to germline editing for research uses, provided that these studies do not involve the transfer of an embryo to a person’s uterus. It also does not apply to genome editing in human somatic (non-reproductive) cells to treat diseases, for which patients can provide informed consent and the DNA modifications are not heritable.”

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The letter included the names of 18 scientists from seven countries.

Pro-life leaders’ reactions to the news were mixed.

Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL), praised the scientists for calling for an immediate, international ban on human experimentation.

“Americans United for Life applauds the endorsement of a moratorium, international and immediate, on genetically-editing embryonic human beings, published this week by Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health,” Foster said.

“An immediate moratorium is necessary because scientists do not, at this time, know enough to ensure that gene-editing is therapeutic for the embryonic human patient, nor all of the long-term implications for the developing child of altering or removing genes at that early, embryonic stage of human development,” Foster said, noting that such changes would be irreversible.

However, researchers with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, said the proposal is short-sighted.

“Scientifically unsound and ethically problematic experiments on human embryos, including creating gene-edited embryos in the lab and then destroying them, would still be allowed and even encouraged,” said Dr. David Prentice, CLI’s vice president and research director. “We call instead for the full prohibition of gene-editing experiments on embryos or germ cells – not just a speed bump.”

Biochemist and CLI Associate Scholar Dr. Tara Sander Lee agreed.

“How far will we have to go to sufficiently understand those consequences, and at what cost to the children experimented upon? What will happen to them when the experiments fail?” Lee asked. “A real moratorium is needed to protect vulnerable human beings.”