This past winter a Chinese doctor made headlines when he claimed he created the first genetically modified human embryos who were successfully nurtured to birth.
The doctor used a developing biotechnology known as CRISPR-Cas9 that allows scientists to genetically edit cells. The technique holds the potential to treat a variety of genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, and more complex conditions like cancers and heart disease.
As promising as that sounds, deploying gene-editing to human embryos is rife with ethical questions: concerns about experimentation on minors, human embryo destruction, the creation of life in a lab, “designer babies,” the boundary between therapy and “enhancement,” and interventions in the genome that will be passed on to future generations.
Genetically modified human embryos raise new versions of old bioethical problems, as well as some new ones.
First, countless embryonic human beings were killed in the process that led to the live birth of these genetically modified children. Like all “assisted reproductive technologies,” many more embryos are created than are implanted and subsequently delivered. The remaining embryonic human beings are either frozen in perpetuity or destroyed.
We should also care about the dignity of life in its origins. There is great danger in creating children in the laboratory, treating human subjects as objects of technological mastery. That will have profound moral and cultural implications as science progresses: societies can then view human life—all life, modified or not—as something that can easily be toyed with and discarded.
We forget the fact that children should be begotten, not made, at our peril. We should be wary of practices that separate the life-giving act from the lovemaking act. Indeed, these new technologies are misnamed. They don’t “assist”— they replace fertility and procreation with reproduction in a sterile lab. Human beings are to be welcomed as gifts, not manufactured as products.
The technologies behind the manufacture of babies raise new questions, too. The CRISPRCas9 procedure allows scientists to take further steps down the road to creating designer babies. This would allow parents—or other authorities— to dictate the characteristics of future people.
There’s also the specter of a kind of “brave new world” genetic arms race. Imagine John Edwards’ ‘Two Americas,’ but between the genetic haves and the genetic have-nots. An America where certain wealthy (and morally unscrupulous people) design super-babies, while everyone else remains “unenhanced.” It isn’t hard to fathom how these new technologies could be deployed in the hands of racist, eugenicist, or genocidal governments of the future.
As Leon Kass has explained, “As bad as it might be to destroy a creature made in God’s image, it might be very much worse to be creating them after images of one’s own.”
Of course, we have no idea what the consequences — both physical and social — will be to these genetic interventions. Scientists simply don’t know whether knocking out a particular gene will have other, unintended health consequences later. The genetic code is complicated and interconnected, and even a small, well-intentioned modification could have large ramifications.
Furthermore, genetically modifying human embryos will modify their germline (sperm and ova), such that those modifications will transfer to future generations. So, for these Chinese babies, not only has their genome been modified, but their entire lineage could be affected. Right now, it all amounts to an experiment.
Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. To avoid the trap of falling into a technocracy, humans must govern technology, not the reverse. We must avoid the trap of becoming Luddites. New biotechnologies hold potential to cure and prevent disease, to promote human flourishing— but only if the deployment of technology is governed by morality.
The experiments in China with genetically modified babies are just the beginning of what could go wrong.
RYAN T. ANDERSON, PH.D. (@RyanTAnd) was a featured speaker at the Legatus 2018 Summit. He is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, and of the recently released When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.