Bioethics Blogs

Editorial Precision? Snapshot of CRISPR germline in the news

It’s been less than a year and a half since researchers at Sun Yat-sen University reported their first-of-its-kind experiment using CRISPR/Cas-9 to genetically modify nonviable human embryos. Since then, controversy about the prospect of using CRISPR for human reproduction – to alter the traits passed down to future generations – has been covered in hundreds of news articles, editorials, and commentaries. But how well has this media spotlight illuminated the key points of the debate?

Nearly every article that discusses CRISPR uses the term “gene editing,” and many say explicitly that it is a “precise” tool just like a “cut-and-paste” word processing program. A recent paper co-authored by CGS fellow Lisa Ikemoto notes that metaphors used to inform public policy addressing emerging biotechnologies should encompass: (1) the ethical complexity of the technology, (2) an accurate description of how it works, and (3) the known and unknown consequences of various applications.  Does the “gene editing” metaphor give us any of that in contemplating the idea of genetically modified babies?

Along with many others, the Center for Genetics and Society is deeply concerned about using CRISPR to modify the human germline, for both safety and societal reasons. First, as nearly all agree, it would be way too risky; among other problems, it could result in off-target effects that would be passed down to future generations. Second, it’s not medically necessary – there are much better and safer ways for people at risk of transmitting inherited diseases to ensure their children are unaffected. Beyond the technical risks of CRISPR are the likely social consequences of allowing human germline interventions, including its use to “enhance” the children of the already affluent, thus reinforcing existing inequalities and creating opportunities for new ones.

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.