Bioethics Blogs

On the Safety Argument Against Gene Editing

As discussed in an exchange earlier this year on this blog, one of the concerns about editing the human germline is that the risks to the next generation and future generations are not predictable, and the experiments to address those safety concerns cannot be done ethically.  Go here, and to the embedded links, to review.  Recently, Paige Cunningham and Michael Sleasman of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD) weighed in on the blog at

At the session on CRISPR at the CBHD summer conference this past June 18-20, the various arguments against human germline editing were rehearsed and debated.  They were expressed similarly to the discussions on this blog and the blog.  But the “safety argument” was challenged by no less an authority than plenary speaker Maureen Condic, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah.  Her rejoinder:  in a carefully circumscribed case, the safety argument against human germline editing likely fails.  That is, an exception that could be plausibly argued to have an acceptable risk-benefit ratio for human treatment could be found.

The criteria for such an exception:  point gene mutation, gene function clearly understood, expression in only one tissue, clear ability to assess whether the target gene, and only the target gene, had been edited.  And an example?  Sickle cell anemia.  Point mutation in the hemoglobin gene.  Expression only in red blood cell precursors.  Known gene function, easily monitored.  The “low hanging fruit” of human germline editing.

I still resist this argument.  If one envisions editing the hemoglobin gene in an intact human embryo, then I don’t see how the sufficient control of the process could be demonstrated without subjecting at least one—and likely more than one—human embryo to risks that include severe genetic harm and, frankly, death or oblivion, at least in the form of never being implanted. 

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.