Bioethics Blogs

Why edited embryos won’t lead to designer babies or eugenics (unless we want it too)

The UK became the first country to officially approve gene editing research in human embryos on Monday. The HFEA decision means experiments in which the genes of embryos are manipulated will likely begin at the Francis Crick Institute within the next few months.

Gene editing (GE) technologies are immensely powerful. They have already been used to manipulate mosquitos so they cannot carry diseases like malaria or Zika. They have been used in medicine to reprogram human immune cells to target cancer. When used for research purposes, they promise to greatly increase our knowledge of genetics and human heredity. This will lead to a better understanding of disease, which in turn will allow better treatments – including better drugs.

The study approved by the HFEA has precisely these aims. It seeks to investigate the role that different genes play in early pregnancy. Only around 13% of all fertilized embryos survive the first trimester of pregnancy. We do not understand why this is. This study will help solve this mystery, and could result in better conventional therapies to combat infertility and miscarriage.

Many have argued that this study in unethical and the HFEA has made a horrible mistake in approving it. For some this is because the research involves human embryos. Those who think it is immoral to perform any experiments using human embryos have clear reasons to object to this study.  However, studies like this are hardly uncommon or novel. Last year 20 experiments using human embryos were approved by the HFEA.  The fact that such research encounters little opposition indicates a general acceptance of some types of embryo research.  Given the fact that embryos are unable to experience suffering, some research on them seems permissible if four further conditions are met.  1) the embryos are never implanted into a woman; 2) the embryos are destroyed within 14 days of development; 3) the research is performed on embryos which would otherwise be destroyed; and 4) the research is performed on embryos whose parents’ consent for them to be used in research.

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.