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Gene Editing and the Welfare of Embryos

In two prior articles (one [1] and two [2]) I introduced and discussed ethical implications of the new revolutionary gene-editing technique known as CRISPR.

In this article, I draw attention to the scientific community’s terrible disregard for the welfare of human embryos as it seeks to apply and perfect the new technique.

National Academies Report

In February 2017, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a report [3] (“Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance”) summarizing its conclusion from a 2015 International Summit [4] on gene editing.  The summit gathered nearly 500 scientists, ethicists, legal experts and patient groups from twenty countries to discuss ethical concerns raised by the new gene-editing technologies, especially by human germ-line editing (i.e., genetic alterations to embryos, sperm and egg that are passed on to progeny). [See report: executive summary [5]]

The effort behind the summit and report was worthwhile.  Realizing that gene editing is already happening and will inevitably continue, the participants and drafters attempted to get out in front of, influence and extend the public conversation on a technology that promises to affect us all.  It raised good questions: Should germ-line editing be permitted?  If so, what regulations should govern it?  How should “societal values” be factored into decision-making about clinical applications and policy discussions?  And so on.

Damning Weakness: What About Embryos?

A damning weakness in the report is its failure to recommend proper safeguards for embryonic human life.  It states up front that “regulatory protections for human research subjects do not apply to the ex vivo [i.e., living human] embryo” (p. 43).  Although “embryos should be regarded as different from ordinary human tissue,” they should “nonetheless be used for some areas of research if in the service of important scientific knowledge” (p. 42).

The report mentions the view of “some” who hold that embryo creation for research is illicit: “[they] argue that fertilization brings a new, morally significant human being into existence, and that making embryos for research purposes is inherently disrespectful of human life and potentially open to significant abuses.”  In the entire 300-page report, this is the only nod given to the embryos-should-be-protected camp.  Immediately, the report makes its own the recommendation of a Clinton-era NIH document: “making embryos is justified when ‘the research by its very nature cannot otherwise be validly conducted’ or when it is necessary for a study that is ‘potentially of outstanding scientific and therapeutic value’” (pp. 43-44).

The report concludes that scientists should be permitted to carry out lethal germ-line experimentation on embryos for basic research: “Heritable genome-editing [i.e., germ-line editing] trials must be approached with caution, but caution does not mean they must be prohibited” (p. 134).  And as if to underline its disregard for embryonic life, it further recommends against its use with the intention of establishing a pregnancy until “a robust and effective regulatory framework” can be developed.  The implications are clear: embryos used for basic research presently should not be given a path to birth.

First-fruits Of The Report

The two most-widely reported accounts of embryo editing since the report’s release were published in July and September respectively.  The July team announced it had performed lethal experiments on 58 human embryos [6], which the team itself made from donated gametes.  The September team announced it had used 54 human embryos [7], which it had taken from a batch of ‘left over’ IVF embryos.  Neither team’s publication mentions the ethical problem raised by the killing of embryos.

The Utilitarian Allure

Note well the significance of this report.  Although advisory and having no regulatory power, it represents the statum mentis saeculi—“the state of the secular mind”—on this world-transforming technology at the present time.  And that state should be very troublesome to morally conscientious people.

Although religious representatives were invited to the international summit, they were tokens.  Other than gestures and innuendos, no traditional ethical reasoning made it into the report.  It is purely utilitarian: destroying human embryos is justifiable if at the service of the greater good.

Yet faced with the utilitarian utopia, anyone can be tempted to do a ‘little evil’ to bring about a ‘lot of good’: ‘We need these experiments to perfect procedures that will save countless lives from misery and death.’

Carriers and sufferers of genetic diseases are especially vulnerable.

Licit Alternatives?

Are we then left with two intolerable alternatives: do nothing or do evil?  I hope not.  Just as the Bush-era restrictions on embryo research stimulated insights in scientists like Shinya Yamanaka [8] that opened the astonishing world of cellular reprogramming, so too now morally conscientious scientists need to investigate non-objectionable ways to perfect clinical techniques using CRISPR.

The report is like a toothless kitten: makes you feel good to look at it, but it’s incapable of stopping a rat.  Even though the Bush restrictions are still in effect, as is the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, private moneys are pouring in for gene-editing research; and California, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have created funds so that those states may overcome the restrictions imposed at the federal level (Report,  p. 43).  Other states are sure to follow.

We need new federal regulatory guidelines to help direct the powerful scientific energies unleashed by the new gene-editing technologies towards morally unobjectionable possibilities.