An argument for heritable genome editing

Some weeks ago, a utilitarian perspective in favor of heritable genome editing was published (purchase or subscription required to read).  In it, the author, Kevin Smith of Abertay University in the United Kingdom, begins with a general defense of utilitarianism, the ethical philosophy that what is morally good is what produces the greatest good for the greatest number, as opposed to alternative ways of judging that invoke duty, principles, God’s law, or virtues.  In the process, he comments that ethicists who do not consider themselves utilitarian often employ risk-benefit or cost-benefit analyses in making particular judgments.  “We’re all utilitarians now,” as it were.   Smith then proceeds to make a case by a utilitarian, for utilitarians, in favor of pursuing heritable genome editing.  Key points:

  • Genetic editing will technically improve, reducing if not eliminating risks and broadening the ability not only to eliminate genetic disease but also to enhance complex genetic traits and correct mutations that increase risk for disease.  He envisions a day when correcting gene editing errors will readily be reversible by further editing (an “undo” function, as it were).  Consequently, we should anticipate that heritable genome editing will provide many benefits but few harms.
  • Early adoption of technologies is generally beneficial in the end, as, he argues, was the case with IVF, because to delay is to put off the benefits.  In the case of heritable genome editing, we won’t know how well it works without forging ahead.  Nonetheless, the editing of embryos leading to the birth of the edited twins in China in late 2018 was a bit reckless, and the reaction threatens to regrettably and unnecessarily retard progress.
  • Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is not a preferable option because some genetic diseases cannot be avoided with PGD (i.e., if all IVF embryos are affected, so there is no unaffected embryo to select) and, more importantly, any additional risk from heritable genome editing is likely to be limited to a relatively few cases in the relative short term, while ultimately yielding much larger benefits to a larger number, justifying the greater risk to some.  (This, I suppose, could be considered crudely analogous to the accepted human research principle that risks to subjects may be acceptable if potential benefits to society—e.g., in development of a candidate new medicine—are possibly greater.  It’s OK for some people to get sick from too high a dose of an experimental drug, for example.)
  • Heritable genome editing should be used soon, because doing so will hasten the first celebrated successes, which will supercharge public support to expand the use of the technology.
  • Adoption is an important alternative, because it increases the happiness of an existing individual, the adoptee, instead of the more speculative prospect of a healthy new person without disease from a mishap from the gene editing.  But if a couple chooses not to adopt, preferring to have a genetically-related offspring, they should not be denied the opportunity if one is possibly available.
  • In general, more new people means more overall happiness for the human race in general, because the new people are more likely to be happy and not, and at least not diminish the happiness of other existing people in the progress.  (This seems to take for granted that heritable genome editing will not cause a detrimental population explosion—which, indeed, seems pretty unlikely.)
  • Having a child produces more happiness for all involved than not having one.
  • Having a genetically related child is better than having one that is partly unrelated, as would be the case with a child conceived using sperm or egg donation from a donor without a genetic disease to be avoided.
  • In cases where a couple simply could not avoid their naturally-conceived child having a bad genetic disease, to go ahead and conceive such a child would entail suffering for the child and parents, and the moral benefits of suffering are overrated.
  • The upside of heritable genome editing—i.e., the potential for human enhancement—is huge.

Many of these points are reasonable as far as they go.  Where this sort of argument leaves one unsatisfied is in the high optimism for technical success without unintended consequences; conceiving the risk-benefit relationship as if it can readily be calculated with confidence; disregard for broad consequences for how we understand ourselves, our begetting, and how we should receive fellow humans who are less than fully whole, physically; and, in some cases, the potential for alternative treatments.

Smith rejects a “precautionary” approach as too timid, but still concludes that maybe we should wait a bit, for the reaction to the Chinese twins’ birth to wear off and for scientist to be able to marshal further their technical case. 

Discussion to follow in future posts.

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Steve Phillips
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Smith’s argument demonstrates one of the inherent flaws of utilitarian moral thinking. It depends on our assessment of what the good and bad consequences of an action are. He lists the potential for human enhancement as a huge positive consequence of proceeding with this technology. However, many (including most current proponents of the development of germline gene editing) see the use of gene editing for enhancement as being fraught with extremely serious moral problems. The expectation that the development of human germline gene editing will inevitably lead to its use for enhancement is one of the strongest arguments for why… Read more »