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07/28/2017

Human genetic editing (engineering) is here

A “hat tip” again to Wesley Smith, who at the National Review Online blog, provided a link to this week’s report in the MIT Technology Review that the first editing of genes in human embryos in the US is underway—and apparently not yet formally published—at an academic center in Portland, Oregon.  Similar efforts have been undertaken in China, but US scientists have been a little more tentative about taking this step in humans.

In 2015, US scientists were clearly against trying to initiate a pregnancy with an IVF embryo whose genes had been altered in the laboratory.  They were, apparently, divided on whether experiments on early human embryos, sperm, or eggs in the laboratory were “responsible.”

This blog discussed the matter back then.

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine were more open to proceeding with changing human genes in a way that would be permanent—inherited from generation to generation—as long as the process was done as carefully as they thought it could be. 

The work still appears to be held very close to the vest.  Funded by private money—the law prohibits public expenditures for this kind of work on humans—the MIT report says the Oregon scientists changed some genes (the MIT reporters did not find out which ones) in “many dozens” of IVF embryos that were created and destroyed specifically for research.

The ultimate goal sounds laudable:  repairing genes that cause inherited disease.  The posts linked to above reviewed some of these arguments, or provided further links to those discussions. 

Fears include: 1) unknown risks to any baby born after this.  Apparently the Oregon scientists think these risks may be avoided by editing an egg at, or almost at, the moment of fertilization; 2) unknown risks to the baby, some years later, after it grows, or risks of fetal death—still unknown; 3) opening the door to broader gene editing, including enhancement efforts, popularly called “designer babies.” 

The first two may—may—be somewhat manageable.  The third will be pursued, somewhere, regardless of complaints that it should not be done.

A further future risk is that whoever pays for medical care will insist on gene editing, perhaps quite broadly, as a condition of providing medical insurance coverage for a newborn, throughout life.  Think about it: if you’re born with sickle cell anemia, federal “Medi-Health” will not pay for your care; your parents should have edited the gene out of you.

In the meantime, an unknown number of unborn embryos and fetuses—i.e., unborn human beings—will be killed in the name of research, as things stand now, when the law does not consider them human subjects worthy of human research protections.

Smith worries: are we just going to stand by and watch this?  Will there be any meaningful democratic deliberation?  It appears the answers are: yes to the first, no to the second.  Why?  Maybe you saw a news report about this—for all of 3 minutes.  Then it was back to discussions of Anthony Scaramucci’s vocabulary or the US Senate’s choreiform movements.  We simply don’t have the will, the attention span, the urgency to care.  We hear a news story, or write a blog post, and then go on.  I don’t know how to change this.  Absent a horror story that everyone can understand, the artificial engineering of children looks like it will march on.

At least the Church can think, and act, as the Church should:  this is a good time to look up, and read (or re-read) “What’s wrong with designer genes?” from the Desiring God website, posted just 2 years ago (July 21, 2015).

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