Bioethics Blogs

NIH throws out the bathwater, baby and all.

Yesterday, the US National Institutes of Health announced that they would “not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.”  The announcement came in a statement from the NIH’s director and former US head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins.  This area is controversial, and has been the subject of a great deal of recent debate, with some scientists calling for a moratorium on human embryology research, others on the move into treatment.

This debate has, no doubt, been sharpened by the recent publication of a scientific paper reporting the – on the face of it, discouraging – results of attempts to use genome editing in non-viable, supernumerary IVF embryos to edit the HBB gene, mutations in which are responsible for the blood disorder β-thalassaemia.

The NIH statement offers no clear reason for banning federal funding of human embryo research using genome editing.  What it did was to wave casually in the general direction of the provisional conclusions in some well rehearsed debates about using genetically modified human embryos in treatment.  The argument, again only implicit, was, in effect, that ‘since we (or our colleagues in the FDA) won’t permit genome-edited embryos to be used in treatment, there is therefore no reason to fund research.  So there is really no point considering the possible benefits that we might gain from such research or reconsidering the conditions of the moral consensus, which might have changed since we last looked.’

What was rather disappointing about this statement was its apparent refusal to engage in any form of reflection or argument.  And within this, what is most disappointing is that ‘ethical issues’, as so often in casual usage, appear to mean ‘cons’ or ‘reasons why not’.  As anyone who takes a moment to consider the issues will see there are ethical arguments on both sides.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.