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Engineering the Human Race II: CRISPR Ethics

The first part of this essay [1] introduced the revolutionary new gene editing tool called CRISPR and discussed some of its present and possible uses.

Part II asks ethical questions concerning the use of CRISPR for “germ-line” gene editing.  Recall that all edits performed on germ line cells and early embryos are passed on to progeny.

The following questions and answers are obviously not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to educate readers on the kinds of questions to be asking.

1. Do experiments aimed at perfecting the CRISPR technique itself involve wrongful harm to human embryos?

The answer is yes. Germ line editing on human embryos presently involves killing all the test subjects.  It was reported [2] that the Oregon research created “many tens” of IVF embryos (one report [3] put the number at 58), grew them for five days, gathered the desired data, then killed the embryos and harvested [3] their stem cells.

2. Does and will CRISPR incentivize the creation of human beings through IVF?

Here, too, the answer is yes.  As noted in the prior reply, IVF is already being used to create test subjects.  The situation is poised to darken as CRISPR moves to clinical trials and ordinary medical usage.  Couples wanting to delete a diseased gene from their progeny will create IVF embryos, select out the healthiest, destroy or freeze the others, perform CRISPR, then implant the lucky embryo(s) into a female uterus.

It should be noted that an Oregon lab [4] intentionally created embryos using infected sperm from a donor with a genetic disease called cardiomyopathy, a dangerous and sometimes deadly heart condition.  Then, following research protocols, it destroyed the embryos: “there was never an intention to implant them into a womb [5].”

3. What are other foreseeable dangers?

4. What about the morality of not using CRISPR to correct heritable diseases when we could?  Do we have a moral obligation to use technologies such as CRISPR to seek to alter our genetics positively?

Some such as [13] Julian Savulescu answer yes, as long as the interventions are ‘beneficial’ to oneself and society.  Savulescu however holds a utilitarian view of ‘beneficial’, which includes the killing of embryos and fetuses (and, in the views [14] of his associates, infants), the creation of life outside of marital intercourse, and the toleration of many risks to individuals and society that traditional morality would not tolerate.

From a Christian perspective, if we can correct heritable diseases with CRISPR while upholding all our rightful duties to ourselves, progeny, society and God, then we ought to try.

As to whether we should use gene editing to enhance humanity towards a “transhuman” future (google “transhumanism”), many ethical questions remain, not the least of which is the safety of the gene-editing techniques themselves.

Conclusion

The conversation over CRISPR has just begun.  It mustn’t be limited to scientists and their progressive ethicists.

Wherever you have a platform, begin speaking about CRISPR.  Every conscientious voice should be heard on this revolutionary scientific technique.