Bioethics News

Debate begins over ethics of genetic editing

At the heart of the debate over the use of CRISPR technology for gene-editing is the human embryo. While manipulation of the genomes of plants and animals also raises profound ethical issues, it is the possibility of altering the human genome which generates summits and white papers.

So this week, there was a flurry of activity about the ethics of human genetic engineering.

At the International Summit on Human Gene-Editing in Washington DC this week, convoked by the US science and medicine academies, the UK Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, it was apparent that little had changed since 12-round fight over the use of human embryonic stem cells a decade ago. Even the characters had not changed much; some, like George Q. Daley, of Harvard, and Robin Lovell-Badge, from the UK, were leading defenders of human embryonic stem cell research.

The summit concluded that “It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until (i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved … and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application.”

No one was willing to treat destruction of embryos as a step too far.

However, there were varying degrees of caution.

As an example of the permissive side, there is Chris Gyngell, Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu who wrote from Oxford University in the UK. They saw no reason why embryos should not be engineered for research, although they acknowledged that editing for reproduction was not politically feasible at the moment:

In cloning, a distinction between reproductive applications and research enabled clearly beneficial research to proceed while controversial applications were set aside.

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.