This article by Gina Kolata, “Chinese Scientist Edit Genes of Human Embryos, Raising Concerns” explores the ethics of germ line engineering nonviable human embryos. The first ever experiment on genetically modifying a human embryo was done and a paper published by a team of Chinese scientists in Protein & Cell. They obtained the nonviable embryos from a fertility clinic. These embryos could not have resulted in a live birth. They were trying to remove a gene that was linked to a blood disorder without creating other mutations. However, this experiment eventually failed on 85 embryos. The embryos either died, or the gene was not altered. In four cases where the gene was altered, the embryos showed signs of DNA mutations and also resulted in a failure. This experiment by the Chinese scientist received much backlash from the international scientific community. For example, George Q. Daley from Harvard states that, “This is an unsafe procedure and should not be practiced at this time, and perhaps never.” Even though the Chinese scientists were not intending to create a baby, some researchers show concern over the clinical applications and implications of such experimentation. This might led to a rush to edit genes in babies before the ethics have been resolved. One important example shown in this article is by Rudolf Jaenisch from M.I.T. who argues against the genetic engineering of even diseases with 100 percent certainty of inheritance. In the case of Huntington’s, the signs of the disease are not shown at the time of genetic modification. This means that statistically, half of the embryos modified will have been normal and healthy originally. Dr. Jaenisch says that it is “unacceptable to mutate normal embryos.” To many of these researchers, there is an unpredictable risk to permanently altering a embryo that develops into a child. This, some argue, makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. However, some might point out that only by doing such experiments, we can gain more information on genetic repair and understanding on genetic diseases in early development.
This article links with our talk with Matthew Liao and his paper, “Selecting Children: The Ethics of Reproductive Genetic Engineering”. In his paper, Liao focuses on germ line engineering and genetic screening and modification. In this talk, he supports the germ line engineering through the Human Rights Approach. He argued that it is our genetic code that makes us right holders with moral agency. As such, embryos with the same genetic code are right holders who should have the fundamental conditions to pursue a life. However, this article raises the question, ‘how do we know if an offsprings’ fundamental conditions will be impacted?’ The researchers in the article argue against germ line engineering of human embryos because of the danger and unpredictable risk. This unknown risk could impact the fundamental conditions of the offspring. With a lack of knowledge on the consequences of gene mutation, they argue that germ line engineering should not be undertaken. It is also perhaps the permanence of such genetic engineering that scares scientists as well. If an edited embryo is brought to full term, the change is permanent. This change is then able to be inherited by subsequent generations. Perhaps a way to move forward, in terms of research, is to research ways to make changes reversible so that unknown risks and dangers can be prevented.
The example given by Dr. Jaenisch in the article is particularly interesting. It hits upon a point that Liao did not discuss in his talk. ‘To what extent should we modify healthy embryos at the cost of fixing unhealthy embryos?’ One might argue that if it does not cause the offspring to lack any fundamental capabilities, it should be morally permissible. It might also be argued that it is morally impermissible to modify a healthy embryo because it has a life worth living, or moral agency or etc. If modifying a ‘sick’ embryo is morally permissible, why is modifying a healthy embryo not morally permissible? Modifying a healthy embryo seems to tie in with the “Interfering with Nature View” that Liao discusses (982). This view argues that it is morally impermissible to interfere with human nature and nature itself. Liao, in his paper, shows how this Human Nature View actually provides “few constraints against reproductive genetic engineering”, even though they are significant ones (982). But in the examples he gives, he shows how creating hybrid animal-humans or creating an offspring with moral agency can be morally impermissible and permissible respectively. The question of a healthy embryo is interesting because Dr. Jaenisch seems to follow the ‘Interfering with Nature View”. If one could modify an unhealthy embryo into a healthy one, then it should be morally permissible to do so. But what if it at the cost of a healthy embryo? This cost is not clearly defined because of the lack of science we have at our hands. If the cost is negligible, then Liao’s argument will stand because no embryos are modified to lack fundamental capabilities. But what if the healthy embryos were affected and lacked fundamental capabilities? I believe Liao would say it is morally impermissible to do so because of his third and fourth claim that it is morally impermissible to cause an offspring to have a lack of fundamental capabilities and it is morally impermissible to not fix a capability if it is not difficult to do so.
Finally, this article also brings up a third question which is, ‘To what extent constitutes as genetic enhancement?’ In this Chinese experiment, they were trying to remove a gene that was linked with blood disorder. But what if one removed the gene for myopia or risk of cancer or risk of Alzheimer’s’, etc.? To what extent can that be considered enhancement? If they are considered enhancements, then we have to look at the Hubristic Motivation View (strong or weak). It states that “it is not morally permissible to engage in selection if one has a hubristic motivation to control reproduction in enhancement cases” (986). If reducing the risk of certain diseases or afflictions can be considered enhancements, then it would be morally impermissible to make such modifications.