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04/28/2015

Editing Genes

The idea of “designer babies” is not an uncommon discussion topic in bioethics communities or pop-culture. From its depiction in “classic” bioethics ethics movies like GATTACA, to current medical practices, like allowing for selective implantation of IVF created embryos, the idea of choosing our children has moved from science fiction to being realized as an actual possibility.

As I was reading the news yesterday, I came across an article that highlighted a new technic being tested in China that would take this to a whole new level. The study being highlighted is one where Chinese scientists are using a technic to “edit” human genes through a process known as “Crispr” to modify human DNA. There are so many ethical concerns regarding this research experiment and it’s potential application, that to address all of them would far exceed the limits of a blog post. However, I do want to raise some of my broader concerns for consideration with the advent of this experiment.

First, I am concerned about the very nature of the experiment. Eighty-five (85) human embryos were tested on with no intention of allowing them to fully develop. Experimenting on human lives at the earliest stages with the intent to destroy them, or to prevent them from developing, poses a major ethical problem. It regards human life as disposable by allowing for its destruction at the earliest stages of development. Additionally, the article also refers to the embryos tested as being deemed “defective” (please note defective was not defined). As I discussed in my post on April 13, 2015, discrimination due to a perceived “defect” is highly problematic. Here, the embryos were deemed acceptable to experiment on due to having some sort of “defect.” Their worth was deemed disposable.

Second, I am concerned with the goal of the experiment seeking to alter the human condition.
Although the initial goal seems worthy – to replace genetic markers for disease – the science is complex and not without consequence. If and when the scientific technics for this process are figured out, it will no doubt will be applied for purposes other than healing. Using the example of Huntington’s disease, the article also points out that the process itself presents ethical concerns as the “editing” must begin immediately, leaving no time to test to see if the embryo actually contains the genetic mutation before altering it. This means that the process could be applied to a “healthy” embryo, exposing it to unnecessary risks.

Finally, I am concerned about the unintended consequences of the experiment, should its goals be realized. By altering the DNA, the “edits” made will impact not only the individual, but all of his/her descendants, as well. This means that the risks presented are not limited to the embryonic person, but extend infinitely to all of his/her future descendants.

As I mentioned, these are only a few of the concerns that come from this experiment. I encourage you to read the article and consider the other ethical implications that will arise from editing human genes.

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