A moral imperative to pursue gene editing research?
The bioethicist Erik Parens has recently asked whether parents can be trusted with gene-editing technology, in a thought-provoking essay published in Aeon magazine. To set the stage, he writes that: “In April 2015, in the pages of Science, a group of prominent scientists and ethicists announced the need for a public conversation about a new gene-editing technology that, in principle, could be used to make precise, safe and effective changes – or ‘edits’ – to human genomes.”
Why the need for a public conversation? For one thing, some people fear that this new technology – called CRISPR-Cas9 – will be used to create “designer babies,” that is, offspring whose genomes have been tweaked to select for traits that the parents judge to be desirable (in a way that goes beyond attempts to treat or prevent disease). Others see a direct path to Nazi-style eugenics, and suggest that a ban on at least certain uses of the technology should be strongly considered.
But as with any new potent technology, CRISPR-Cas9 could be used for good as well as for ill. The potential for misuse, then, needs to be balanced against the possible benefits that could be brought to society if the technology were used appropriately.
And that means (among other things) deciding what uses should be considered “for good” or “for ill” in the first place. In other words, there is no avoiding the need for a sober conversation about fundamental values.
Fortunately, the conversation is well underway. For a recent example, readers of this blog should take a look at the transcript of a fascinating debate between Margaret Somerville, a prominent Canadian ethicist, and Julian Savulescu, the Oxford philosopher and editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Moderated by Jim Brown of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, here is the first bit of their exchange:
Jim Brown: Julian Savulescu, if I could begin with you. You argue that there is a moral imperative for us to pursue gene editing research. Briefly, why do you think it’s so important for us to embrace this technology?
Julian Savulescu: Genetic engineering has been around for about 30 years, widely used in medical research, and also in agriculture, but gene editing is a new version of genetic engineering that is highly accurate, specific, and is able to modify genomes without causing side effects or damage. It’s already been used to create malaria-fighting mosquitoes, drought-resistant wheat, and in other areas of agriculture. But what’s currently being proposed is the genetic modification of human embryos, and this has caused widespread resistance. I think there’s a moral obligation to do this kind of research in the following way. This could be used to create human embryos with very precise genetic modifications, to understand how we develop, why development goes wrong, why genetic disorders occur. It could also be used to create embryonic stem cells with precise changes that might make subsequent stem cells, cancer-fighting stem cells, or even stem cells that fight aging. It could also be used to create tissue with say, changes to understand the origins of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease and develop drugs for the treatment of those diseases. This is what I’d call therapeutic gene editing, and because it stands to benefit millions of people who die every year of painful and debilitating conditions, we actually have a moral imperative to do it. What we ought to show more concern for and perhaps ban, is what might be called reproductive gene editing – editing embryos to create live-born babies that are free of genetic disease or perhaps more resistant to common, late-onset diseases or even enhanced in various ways. If we’re concerned about those sorts of changes in society, we can ban reproductive gene editing, yet also engage in the very beneficial research using genetically modified human embryos to study disease.
Jim Brown: And Margaret Somerville, what concerns you about this technology?
Margaret Somerville: Well, I’m interested in the division that Julian makes between the reproductive gene editing and what he calls the therapeutic gene editing. I’m a little surprised that he might not agree with the reproductive gene editing – that is, you would alter the embryo’s germline, so that it wouldn’t be only altered for that embryo, but all the descendants of that embryo would be changed in the same way. And up until – actually, up until this year, there was almost universal agreement, including in some important international documents, that that was wrong, that was ethically wrong, it was a line that we must never step across, that humans have a right to come into existence with their own unique genetic heritage and other humans have no right to alter them, to design them. Julian uses the term genetic engineering – to make them, to manufacture them. Where we would disagree completely is with the setting up of what can be called human embryo manufacturing plants, that is, you would create human embryos in order to use them to make products that would benefit other people, you would use them for experimentation, for research. And Julian’s right, we could do a great deal of good doing that – but there’s a huge danger in looking only at the good that we do. And what we’re doing there is we’re using human life as a product. We’re transmitting human life with the intention of killing it by using it as a product, and I believe that’s wrong. I think that human embryos have moral status that deserves respect, which means they shouldn’t be treated just as products.
The full transcript can be accessed at the following link, courtesy of the Practical Ethics Blog:
Authors who would like to submit work to the Journal of Medical Ethics on the ethics of gene editing research should consult the Instructions for Authors Page. Papers can be submitted here. Please note that the Journal of Medical Ethics remains the top-ranked journal in bioethics for 2015 according to Google Scholar Metrics, with an impact factor of 1.511 and an h5-index of 28.