The world got a lot closer to preventing genetically edited babies, at least for the near future. I worried that China would be a place where this would happen as they have the resources and are trying to become a top tier country for innovation, not just manufacturing. However, China has just clarified that at least for now they will be banning gene editing on babies.
The most recent draft of China’s updated civil code includes new regulations protecting human genes in adults or embryos from experimentation that could “endanger human health or violate ethical norms.” The new law lists a person’s genes in a section of protected personality rights, and according to lawyers who spoke to Nature, anyone experimenting with human genes will be responsible for what happens to their subjects.
A few months back when Dr. He had made the first two gene edited babies, the Wall Street Journal reported:
Peers in China and abroad condemned him for manipulating life’s building blocks using a relatively untested gene-editing tool… A day later, Chinese officials declared his experiment illegal. Authorities in January detained him after an initial probe alleged he forged an approval document and acted in “pursuit of personal fame.”
This had calmed some fears but given that the illegality of the experiment seemed to be a temporary stop-gap measure, I was not so sure. Technode shows how this new law makes these more permanent:
I think this is a good step as it keeps us for now from any experiments on tiny humans. This follows the 5-year moratorium on gene-line or embryonic cell editing proposed by scientists. We still have the danger that some small country may buck the international trend to make money of doctors and people wanting to create genetically perfect kids.
This update to the civil code goes a step further by enshrining the protection of one’s genes as a fundamental right. While the civil code has been undergoing revisions since 2002, additions regarding genes and gene editing come at a time when countries around the world are grappling with how to ethically manage technologies like CRISPR, especially in response to biophysicist He Jiankui’s now-infamous experiment genetically modifying viable human embryos.
The Vatican has maintained unchanged since its ruling in Dignitatis Personae #25 in 2008 which states that gene editing is morally OK on somatic cells but we need greater assurance before we edit embryonic or germ-line (sperm & egg) cells. Current technologies are in many ways advanced but we still need to be cautious as edited the DNA of such cells can never be undone and might last till the end of time, not just that person’s life. I can see us allowing certain treatments in the field in my lifetime but a 5-year moratorium is a minimum.
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