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Gene editing should be banned, bioethicists say

WASHINGTON (BP) — Evangelical bioethicists are calling for a ban — not just a moratorium — on gene editing even as it is being reported that fertility clinics desire to use the controversial technology.

Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced in November the births of the first genetically edited children, twin girls named Lulu and Nana. He led an effort in which the girls’ DNA was altered through the use of a tool known as CRISPR to guard them from the HIV virus their father has, He said.

Though news of the gene-edited babies drew widespread criticism, fertility clinics contacted He to ask him to teach their staffs gene editing for application in their services, according to a May 28 report by the news site STAT, which is produced by Boston Globe Media to report on health, medicine and scientific discovery. A fertility clinic in Dubai emailed He in early December with such a request, and other centers made similar appeals to He, said William Hurlbut, an ethicist and senior research scholar at Stanford University Medical School. Hurlbut has advised He regarding the ethics of his work, STAT reported.

While some scientists have proposed an international moratorium on gene editing, evangelical bioethicists contacted by Baptist Press said a temporary hold is inadequate.

Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell told BP the “only way to prevent future harm to human beings is to ban the procedure and attach stiff penalties for violation of the law.”

He’s announcement “was a siren that signaled an urgent need for global policy to ban human germline gene editing,” said Mitchell, professor of moral philosophy at Union University, in emailed comments. “There is no way germline gene editing in humans can pass ethical muster.”

Mitchell told BP he has submitted a resolution on gene editing to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Resolutions Committee for consideration at the SBC annual meeting June 11-12 in Birmingham, Ala.

Joy Riley, executive director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture, questioned why some people — “no matter how well trained” — would be permitted to make changes to the human genome that threaten to cause harm when inherited.

“Some have called for a moratorium,” she told BP by email. “That is insufficient. It should be a ban.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “The move to design babies is indeed a significant move from seeing children as gifts to seeing children as tech.

“Technology is about tools, and we need tools,” Moore told BP in emailed remarks. “But technology is only good if it is subservient to something greater, to the mystery of humanity, to human beings who know that our tools may be means to an end but that people never are.”

Mitchell, editor of the international journal Ethics & Medicine, offered three reasons gene editing is unethical:

— “First, He’s experiments sacrificed dozens of human embryos. This was the first level of unethical practice.

— “Second, He altered the germ cells or reproductive cells of the human subjects in his research. We should not alter the reproductive cells (sperm or egg) because those alterations will be passed from one generation to the next. If we create a genetic condition that either causes a disability or death, we are responsible for those results. And those alterations will be passed from generation to generation. There is no ethical way to run clinical trials of germline gene editing in humans.

— “Finally, the whole enterprise is fraught with eugenic implications. Children — abled or disabled — are a gift, not a do-it-yourself project. We should not be designing our descendants.”

It now appears He’s success may prove more harmful than helpful. Two researchers reported Monday (June 3) that people with the rare genetic variants He sought to edit into the twin embryos to protect them from HIV actually have a 21 percent higher mortality rate than those with the more prevalent gene, STAT reported. The report appeared in the journal Nature Medicine.

In a January email to Hurlbut, He said he recognizes he “pushed too quickly into a first-of-kind clinical study without the necessary open dialog with regulators, the scientific community, and the public,” according to STAT. He was dismissed by Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen after he announced the births of the genetically edited twins.

Congress, however, is considering eliminating a ban on gene editing for the purpose of creating a baby. The House of Representatives Appropriations Committee was expected to vote today (June 4) on a spending bill that would drop a ban established in late 2015, STAT reported. On May 23, a subcommittee approved a bill that funds the Food and Drug Administration without the provision.

Riley, a physician, described human gene editing as “a grave error. We have a responsibility to succeeding generations to receive them as gifts — not experiment upon them as projects.”

“Would any of us sign up to be someone else’s science project? For governments to allow such experimentation upon embryos is unconscionable,” she told BP.

“C.S. Lewis was correct when he wrote in The Abolition of Man, ‘For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means … the power of some men to make other men what they please.'”