Gene Editing: Unmoored Science

EDITORIAL: A Brave New World of Morality by the Market

(photo: Photo illustration by Melissa Hartog / Shutterstock)

Earlier this month, when researchers announced they had edited genes in human embryos to successfully remove a mutation linked to a serious heart condition, the news was lauded as a great breakthrough. But beyond the promising buzz was the cursory nod to unresolved medical, social and ethical concerns.

The medical reasons for caution are clear enough: If the gene-editing method, CRISPR-Cas9, is adopted in clinical trials, it could permanently modify the genes inherited by a patient’s descendants, with unpredictable results. The new technique also raises the specter of eugenics and of “designer babies” optimized for good looks, high SAT scores and athleticism.

Speaking for many scientists on the matter, Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, a supervising author of the gene-editing study, said, “This is a question for society to decide, whether these technologies should be put into practice and, if so, under what conditions. We scientists are biased on this, and, therefore, this issue is not up to us.”

That message is both curious and disturbing. Izpisúa Belmonte has signaled that scientists are unwilling or unable to draw a bright red line beyond which they will not tread. Other specialists appear unbothered by the research team’s methodology. The researchers created multiple human embryos with the gene mutation, then replaced the mutation with a healthy gene, and finally destroyed the embryos.

The moral line should be crystal clear: “The human embryos were created for the purpose of being destroyed,” said Father Tad Pacholczyk, the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises U.S. dioceses and other Church-affiliated institutions on a range of issues.

“At the outset, it was known that the embryos would not be given a chance to grow and develop. This was a form of tinkering with early human life to extract information. We should never use our fellow human beings as a means” to an end, Father Pacholczyk told the Register.

He noted that the lab that published the results of the experiments also “cloned human embryos in 2014 and then destroyed them before they could grow, creating life for research purposes and then extinguishing it.”

The gene-editing study was conducted by a global team of scientists based in China, South Korea and the United States that received private funding to pursue their work. In an article published this month in Nature, scientists based at Oregon Health and Science University and other laboratories said they had successfully repaired a large number of human embryos, created with sperm from a man who inherited the gene responsible for a potentially fatal heart condition.

Research teams adopted two different strategies for fixing the mutation. In one approach, genetic “scissors” were placed into fertilized eggs, with mixed results. Newly created embryos showed that only some of the cells were repaired. In the second and scientifically more promising approach, gene-editing elements were introduced with the sperm before fertilization. The outcome suggested that the researchers had overcome two problems that had plagued previous efforts. Not only had they consistently repaired the mutation, they also avoided the unintended creation of other mutations in the process.

Scientists engaged in such research say it could help couples that yearn to have their own children but fear their offspring will inherit diseases, like Huntington’s or early-onset Alzheimer’s, which run in families.

If past is prologue, the striking promise of this new technique will stir sufficient support among scientists and the general public to fast-track clinical trials. Indeed, the outcome of the nation’s previous debate on embryo-destructive stem-cell research suggests that a substantial number of Americans have accepted a utilitarian value system that justifies the intentional destruction of early human life when achieving personal or scientific goals.

“We are in turbulent seas without a landmark precisely because we adhere to a view of human life that both gives us enormous power and that, at the same time, denies every possibility of non-arbitrary standards for guiding its use,” observed Leon Kass, who led the President’s Council on Bioethics during the stem-cell debate, in a 2005 address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

This weak, slippery framework is reflected in the comments of a U.S. scientist who helped lead the professional committee that recently approved gene-editing research on a restricted basis.

“We’ve always said in the past gene editing shouldn’t be done, mostly because it couldn’t be done safely,” Richard Hynes, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times.

Now that the safety issues are being addressed, he stressed the need for debate. Yet his comment implied that moral and societal concerns were of little consequence.

Most early media coverage has adopted that dismissive tone. “Gene Editing for ‘Designer Babies’? Highly Unlikely, Scientists Say,” reported one New York Times headline. Yet U.S. sperm banks and clinics specializing in assisted reproduction have already tapped into a strong market for smart, gifted children, so why not gene upgrades to secure a particular eye color or boost musical talent?

We are advancing further into a brave new world of commodified human beings and seductive public indoctrination that engenders moral passivity. Although the scientific community’s muted response to the research can be seen as an expression of “fatalism,” Father Pacholczyk emphasized that scientists possess “a moral compass” to distinguish ethical practices from unethical practices. But research that involves the creation and destruction of human embryos is tolerated by many, partly because we live in a nation that has permitted the destruction of unborn children into the third trimester.

But the fatalism at work also reflects a deeper problem: the lack of a transcendent vision of the human person. “The dignity of others is an empty piety ... unless it’s guaranteed by someone greater than us to whom we owe our fidelity,” writes Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in his new book, Strangers in a Strange Land. “Without that someone, the rights of other people are no more solid than our moods.”

Looking ahead, pro-life Americans should oppose any scientific research that violates the dignity and sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death. And we should call on prestigious journals, like Nature, to bar studies that employ embryo-destructive research.

Finally, though the gene-editing researchers relied on private funds, we need to defend federal and state laws that already prohibit taxpayer support for death-dealing research. U.S. law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars for experiments that involve the destruction of early human life.

The latest news about gene editing will spur an effort to overturn such laws. Let’s stop that campaign in its tracks, while challenging the fatalism that allows such research to flourish.