Undiscussed issues in the debate over human germline genetic modification

Jon Holmlund’s 12/10 post on the use of somatic cell gene modification to treat sickle cell disease and two recent articles in The Telegraph have me thinking about human germline genetic modification again. One of the points in Jon’s post was that somatic cell genetic modification does not have the ethical problems of germ line genetic modification. The Telegraph articles discuss a group that has proposed a global ban on the genetic modification of human embryos and the views of the British government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, who advocates for Britain being at the forefront of this research.

While there are safety concerns with somatic cell genetic modification as with all new medical technology most agree that there are unique concerns with germline genetic modification. The group supporting the “Open Letter on Reproductive Human Germline Modification” focuses on the concern that this technique “could irrevocably alter the nature of the human species and society” in addition to safety concerns. Much of their focus is on the likelihood that the use of germline genetic modification would lead to a biological divide between the rich who could afford genetic modification and the poor who could not.

Walport takes the view that decisions about whether it is right to use human germline genetic modification are risk/benefit decisions and downplays ethical concerns other than safety. He is quoted as saying it was important to think about genetic engineering in a “sensible way” which involved “careful discussion and debate”’ of both scientific and ethical issues. “We shouldn’t think about technologies in a generic way.

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.