The Possibilities and Perils of Gene Editing
Here I will be talking only about gene editing of humans. That is, to be more specific, editing the genes of human embryos. If you are not familiar with the science, please watch the Youtube video of Antony Perry performing a TedTalk about the subject. I know very little about gene editing compared with scientists, but I have attended scientific symposia on the subject and watched films made by scientists and discussed gene editing with them and with bioethicists of various traditions (religious and secular).
Case study: In 2018 it came to light publicly that a Chinese scientist actually edited the gene structure of a pair of twin embryos. The embryos were gestated and born and their exact age now is not known, nor is their identity. The discovery was made through careful investigation of documents. A film is being made about the event. It is in the editing process.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge this is the first time that human embryo genes have been edited and the embryos have developed through gestation to birth and beyond. Some scientists and bioethicist were/are horrified because they think it is well understood that the technology is not yet ready for human testing because the precise mechanisms and results are not entirely understood or predictable.
In this case, according to researchers, the parents both have HIV and the purpose of the gene editing was to assure that their progeny would not inherit the HIV virus by “turning off” the gene(s) that make the infection possible. Many people will celebrate when, if, this process turns out to be successful. However, the scientist in question was arrested and put in prison (in China). I am not certain of the exact charges against him. Some, however, have compared him with other pioneers of science who were, at first, vilified and later celebrated.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
It seems to me that the underlying question for ethicists must be the consequences of gene editing should it become safe and available for human embryos. (Again, I choose to focus only on gene editing of embryos for now. I know that it could someday be used on already born and even adult human beings.)
This is an example of what some Christian ethicists have called “quandry ethics” and harshly criticized as excluding the main goal of Christian ethics—training in virtue. But would training in virtue help a Christian scientist in this case? I doubt it. The consequences must be looked at to decide whether human embryo gene editing is to be practiced and applauded or put on a shelf (like cloning).
Right now most scientists and bioethicists the world over are anxious about gene editing of embryos because the full potential for ill is not understood. Genes are not entirely discrete things but organisms that are parts of an organic system of organisms—within one embryo. Tampering with one gene might affect other genes—possibly in very negative ways.
Also, the question of gene editing of embryos for therapeutic purposes raises the possibility of editing embryo genes for enhancement purposes. Some talk of this in terms of “designer babies”—selecting the sex of an embryo, its eye color, its height, even (potentially, conceivably) its IQ. On the other side, it is conceivable that an embryo programmed genetically to be autistic could be altered to make the child it becomes “normal.” But what is “normal?” Some autistic people are brilliant savants—related to their being autistic.
What if insurance companies get involved in gene testing of embryos and require higher health insurance premiums for children based on their genetic makeup? What if governments get involved and require genetic manipulation of embryos (or more mature human beings) to rule out certain diseases or even certain undesirable traits? None of this is inconceivable.
On the positive side, it appears that embryo gene editing could someday eradicate Huntington’s disease—a horrible genetic disease.
But what about the embryo itself? Does altering the genetic structure of an embryo violate its rights? Does an embryo have rights? If not, why not—especially if it is going to gestate and be born? What about informed consent? Does it apply only to adults?
Worst case scenario: Imagine a couple who, for whatever reason, want a child who is both male and female in terms of anatomy.
When I lived in a European country I discovered that then parents could not given their child whatever name they chose. They had to choose from a list or appeal to a magistrate if the desired name was not on the approved list. The purpose was to avoid children being saddled for life with a name that would hinder their social acceptance. (I’m sure that by now that practice has been eliminated.)
My point is that the line between therapy and enhancement (in gene editing of embryos) is not at all clear. Who would decide where that line lies? Who would decide what enhancements are legal?
Why do I even bring this up? For one thing I am sitting in a hotel room at a convention of scientists that has invited theologians of various religious traditions to listen, learn, and speak. Yesterday I attended a 90 minute small group symposium-discussion of theologians, ethicists, and scientists focused on gene editing where the case of the Chinese scientists (who is now out of prison) was the case study.
But more importantly, I bring this up here to show, hopefully, that “virtue ethics” cannot be the sole focus of ethics. Nor can deontology function successfully without consequentialism. These are false alternatives. A more holistic approach must be taken in cases raised by modern science especially.
There are no easy answers in modern bioethics. And Christian pastors and lay people need to inform themselves of the its cutting edges and bring the discussion into the churches and take the answers, if any are found, into the public square.
One Christian seminary professor (of ethics) told a story about a man in the congregation to which she belongs. She did not know him well. In a group setting she mentioned that she would be attending a convention that included dialogue between biologists and theologians. He said (and I paraphrase) “I’m a molecular biologist and I didn’t know theology and biology had any relationship with each other.” This is the ignorant belief of too many Christians and others.
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