Priest-Neuroscientist: Embryo Gene-Editing Poses Inescapable Ethical Problems
A response to a London-based think tank that called recently for further research into embryonic gene editing.
LONDON — Genetic editing of human embryos, even in special circumstances, ignores the complex ethical problems related to creating and destroying human embryos, a Catholic bioethicist has said.
“On first glance, genetic editing of human embryos to treat diseases seems like a laudable project. But the reality is far more complex,” Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA.
The most likely approach for genetic modification of an embryo or embryos would require their creation through in vitro fertilization, said Father Pacholzyck, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience. This step “violates their human dignity and ‘objectifies’ them.”
“Humans are entitled to be brought into the world not in the cold, impersonal world of laboratory glassware, but exclusively in the loving bodily embrace of their parents,” he added.
Father Pacholzyck’s remarks were a response to a London-based think tank that called recently for further research into embryonic gene editing.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics July 17 took the position that changing a human embryo’s DNA could be morally permissible if it was in the child’s interests and did not worsen social inequality, disadvantage, discrimination or division.
“It is our view that genome editing is not morally unacceptable in itself,” Karen Yeung, chair of the Nuffield working group, told The Guardian. “There is no reason to rule it out in principle,” said Yeung, a professor of law, ethics and informatics at the University of Birmingham.
The council’s report did not advocate changing U.K. law to allow genetic modification. Rather, it advocated research into the safety and effectiveness of gene editing, along with inquiry into its impact on society, and widespread debate about its implications.
The council is an independent body founded in 1991. It is involved in policy and media debates on bioethical issues.
Father Pacholzyck told CNA that proposed genetic treatments would not treat the embryo “as a unique patient, within his or her mother’s womb.” Rather, it would involve “treating the embryo as laboratory fodder.”
Many embryos would have to be simultaneously created or thawed out, then “treated as ‘products’ and subjected to genetic ‘treatments’ to see if just a few of them might end up surviving and developing without the disease,” he said.
“The use of genetic modification technologies on embryos imposes significant risk for the embryo, simply in terms of the mechanical procedures themselves, the numerous manipulative steps involved, and the risks of potential ‘off-target’ genetic changes that might reasonably be expected to occur,” said Father Pacholzyck.
“Permission for research on genetic modification of embryos will open up the floodgates for further subjugation of vulnerable, embryonic humans, individuals at the earliest stages of their existence who will be created in unsuitable settings, manipulated, manhandled, and will often end up perishing as part of the experiment,” he said.
Some experiments indicate that DNA editing of embryos could prevent children from inheriting diseases from faulty genes.
However, a newly published study in Nature Biotechnology suggests that Crispr-Cas9, the most popular current tool for genome editing, causes more damage to DNA than scientists previously realized. The editing process could disrupt healthy genes.
Regardless of effectiveness, any successful changes to an embryo’s DNA would affect all of its cells, including so-called germline cells, like sperm or eggs. These changes would be inherited by any offspring of the fully-grown human being.
Professor Dave Archard, chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, reflected on his report’s recommendations.
“Huge advances are happening in genomics research, and whilst we have to acknowledge that genes alone do not shape a person, the possibility of using genome editing in reproduction to secure or avoid a characteristic in a child offers a radically new approach that is likely to appeal to some prospective parents,” adding that in his view, close attention must be given to the welfare of those involved, especially any children born after the genetic-editing process.
Last year, researchers in Oregon announced they had successfully altered genes in a human embryo for the first time in the United States.
The ethics of gene editing have been considered for several years. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the issue in Dignitas Personae, its 2008 instruction on certain bioethical questions.
“The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore, from that same moment, his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life,” the instruction says.
The instruction says gene therapy for non-inherited cells are in principle morally licit, provided medical treatment ethics are followed. It warned that germ-line cell modification is “considerable and as yet not fully controllable,” and it is not permissible to act in a way that may cause potential harm to resulting children.
It warned against a “eugenic mentality” that aims to improve the gene pool, adding that there could be social stigmas and privileges applied to people with certain genetic qualities, when “such qualities do not constitute what is specifically human.”