Human germline gene editing is not a solution for genetic diseases

By Steve Phillips

I have said this before (see post on 12/5/18), but since otherwise intelligent people continue to say that we should pursue human germline gene editing because it can be used as a means of eliminating the transmission of genetic diseases to future generations, I need to say it one more time. There is no reason to expect that editing the genes of human embryos will ever be a practical and effective way to eliminate the transmission of genetic diseases to future generations.

There are several reasons for this. One is that the elimination of genetic diseases in future generations would require the widespread screening of all potential parents to identify everyone who would need to use this technique for it to actually eliminate a genetic disease. There is no reason to think that that will ever be practically possible and if it were possible it would require an extreme limitation on personal liberty (think Brave New World). If genetic diseases cannot be eliminated using this technique, then what those who take this position must be advocating using it as a means for a particular couple to avoid passing on a genetic disease when they know that they are carriers of that disease. There are additional reasons why gene editing will not be practical and effective for that.

If the couple’s sole priority is to eliminate the possibility of passing on the genetic disorder that they carry to a child, the simplest and most effective way to accomplish that is to choose not to conceive children. That means that their desire to have and raise children would need to be fulfilled through adoption, but it is the most effective way of achieving the goal of not passing on the genetic disorder that they carry. If this method is not chosen, the couple must recognize that they are trying to accomplish two goals, both having their own biological child and not transmitting the inherited disease.

For the large majority of couples trying to accomplish both of those goals the method with the least risk and highest likelihood of success would be creating a child through IVF and using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to choose an unaffected embryo to be implanted in born. However, this method carries significant moral concerns related to the creation and elimination of embryos who have the genetic disorder. Some might think that this moral concern would be a reason to choose gene editing instead, but it is not that simple. The development of the technique of human embryonic gene editing will require using human embryos as research subjects who will be destroyed as an essential step in the research to establish the effectiveness of this technique. This means that it is not a morally superior technique for those who are concerned about the value of the life of a human embryo.

If a couple would choose to pursue embryonic gene editing for the purpose of having a biological child who did not suffer from a genetic disorder that the couple carries, there are still other problems. If gene editing is being used to transform an embryo with a genetic disorder to an embryo without that genetic disorder, it would be necessary to be able to determine that the embryo actually has the disorder before doing the gene editing. Except for the case of two potential parents homozygous for a recessive disorder, some diagnostic test would be needed. We can currently diagnose many genetic disorders in a multi-cell embryo produced by IVF by using PGD. However, for embryonic gene editing to be effective in completely removing the genes for a genetic disorder and replacing them with normal genes the best time to do the gene editing is at the single cell stage. Even if it is established that gene editing can be done effectively and safely, it is hard to see how we would be able to establish that a single cell human zygote has the genetic disorder prior to treating that single cell.

For all of these reasons, the situations in which human embryonic gene editing would possibly be the preferred means of creating a child without a genetic disorder would be quite rare. It is much more likely that the technique would be used for enhancement.

One side of the argument about heritable human gene editing

The current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (subscription required) includes four new articles addressing heritable human gene editing.

George Daley (who was also discussed in a post on this blog last December 6) argues that work must proceed to find a responsible way of editing the human germline for people with genetic diseases that are devastating, untreatable, and largely unavoidable unless affected people forego having children.  This would be a limited use of heritable gene editing, he holds, although it may ultimately become attractive to the 1-4% of offspring of unrelated people who have genetic diseases, who seek to eliminate risk of passing on those diseases, or risk of them, to future generations.  He thinks that “our ignorance” regarding genetic complexity will ultimately prevent attempts at begetting genetically enhanced, “designer” children.

Matthew Porteus reviews “the new class of medicines” becoming possible due to DNA editing.  These include genetically modified cells as drugs, other attempts to treat existing people with known genetic disease by editing genes in part of their bodies, and, eventually, editing humans so that the genes they transmit to future generations are permanently altered. 

Lisa Rosenbaum reviews several of the objections to heritable gene editing that can stand in the way of scientific and social consensus.  Among these, she points out that people with disabilities often live very fruitful lives—lives that may never have come to be if their parents had the chance to edit their genomes, or not brought them to birth in favor of another embryo selected, without editing, through preimplantation genetic diagnosis.  But some disabilities are too severe to allow fruitful lives.  In such cases, she asks, “who is qualified to decide whether it is ethical to alter these children’s fate?”  If you think you can edit a baby destined to suffer severe genetic disease, are you obligated to try?  In that case, there’s “no such thing as an ‘informed decision’…you can’t know until you know.”

Alta Charo, who has co-led several recent prominent international conferences on human gene editing, argues that the “rogues” will proceed to edit people irresponsibly, even—and perhaps especially—in the face of a moratorium.  A more effect approach would be an “ecosystem” of restrictions, including formal regulation, restriction on supplies of raw materials (that is, human eggs, sperm, and embryos) for experimentation, patent and licensing restrictions, health insurance policies, liability for lawsuits, and the like.  Broad, international consensus is an unlikely prospect, she argues, but individual nations may enact their own regimes.  Whether this would really stop a black market is questionable, and heritable editing would become the province of favored entities (government or industry), I suppose—perhaps slowing the whole process down but leaving objections to the practice unsatisfied.

Each of these authors condemns He Jiankui’s claimed editing of Chinese twin girls who were born late last year.  Each of them also clearly takes the position that human gene editing should be regulated, either because it should proceed or because it will, inevitably, proceed. 

None of the authors suggests that heritable human gene editing should “never” be done, the position Francis Collins, the head of the US National Institutes of Health, took on Gerry Baker’s WSJ at Large on the Fox Business Network on Feb 22, 2019.  (I would link it but it appears that the clip has not been preserved on the network’s website.)

This blog recently recounted some reasons why heritable human gene editing should not be pursued.  But the train appears to have left the station.

The new WHO advisory panel on human gene editing

By Jon Holmlund

The World Health Organization (WHO) has empaneled an expert advisory committee to propose standards for governance and oversight of human gene editing.

This group is to meet in Geneva on March 18 and 19 to review the state of the field, broadly, and formulate a plan for its work, over the ensuing 12-18 months.  Sounds like your basic organizational meeting. 

The WHO website does not specify a more detailed charge for the committee, which no doubt will determine its goals.  It is said to have been formed “after an open call for members,” implying, I suppose, that the members volunteered, as opposed to being invited or otherwise prevailed upon.

The co-chairs are Edwin Cameron, former Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, and Margaret Hamburg, who, among her other positions, was FDA Commissioner under Barack Obama.

A review of the full list of biographical sketches for the members shows that they are a truly international group, representing nations from the developed and developing world, and from all continents (except Antarctica, of course).  They are a mix of physicians, biologists, and ethicists.  None appears immediately recognizable from the recent media coverage of human gene editing.  If there are members with a specific interest in promoting technology, that is not obvious from the list, which WHO further says was limited to people screened carefully for conflicts of interest.

One can tell but little from such bio sketches, but in this case it at least appears that a broad range of cultural perspectives will be represented.

There is no clear representation for a theistic or religious perspective.  Also, because the work of such a group naturally draws and involves scientific specialists, the broader, non-scientific, “lay” public is not represented.

Past work by these members addressing gene editing will be of interest to review, which your present correspondent has not, yet.

One hopes that this group will offer wise counsel that, as discussed in prior posts to this blog and elsewhere, goes beyond the usual, limited “benefit-risk” estimates that characterize Western bioethics.

But it will unavoidably not constitute the broad, cosmopolitan, multinational and multiethnic, naturalistic and theistic dialogue that is hoped for—probably too much to hope for, too much to ask of a group of 18 people—in advance of broad adoption of heritable human gene editing, which appears inexorable.

Godspeed and best of success to this group—follow its work as closely as possible. ity51 \lsdl

Summarizing ethical issues with heritable human gene editing

By Jon Holmlund

A brief recap of reasons why we should not pursue heritable human gene editing:

It seems unlikely that risks to immediately-treated generations can be predicted with the accuracy we currently and reasonably expect from human subject research and medical practice.

Risks to later generations, that is, to the descendants of edited people, would be incalculable, and the informed consent of those later generations would be unobtainable.

To allow heritable gene editing even in the uncommon cases of untreatable, devastating genetic illness is to place too much faith in the ability of human providence to identify, and human behavior to observe, firm boundaries on its eventual use. 

Eventual use will become unavoidably subject to a eugenic approach in which the key decision will be what sort of people do we want, what sort of people should be allowed to receive life.

There will be no end to the disagreement over what edits should be permitted, and to the vilification of those considered to have been illegitimately edited, from those who object to their existence, perceived unfair advantage, or other characteristic.

Human populations will become stratified into the “edited” and the natural, introducing deep new justice concerns.  The main issue will be not will humans be gene-edited, but what should be the social status of those who are. 

To reduce heritable human gene editing to a reliable practice requires submitting it to the paradigm of manufacturing, as in drug development, with children seen as quality-controlled products of choice, not gifts of procreation.   To develop the practice, a “translational model,” again analogous to drug development, is necessary, with human embryos serving as raw materials, and, of necessity, a large, indeterminate number created and destroyed solely for development purposes, for the benefit of other humans yet to be born, and of those who would raise them.

Quite possibly, the translational model will demand great license on the extent to which embryos and fetuses may be experimented on; to wit, longer and longer gestations, followed by abortion of later and later stage, to further verify the success of the editing process.

In the extreme situation, the degree of editing may change the human organism in ways that will create a “successor” species to homo sapiens whose nature and desirability cannot be reasonably envisioned at this time.  In the extreme situation.

Even granting that this last scenario may never really arrive in ways that fiction writers can easily imagine, the other reasons should be enough that we simply don’t move heritable gene editing forward.

National Public Radio recently reported on the gene editing of human embryos—one day old—in the laboratory, in an attempt to correct and eliminate the inherited cause of blindness, retinitis pigmentosa.  The end is laudable.  The means is not.  We should not race ahead without considering why, first.  Then, we should not move ahead, but seek alternate means to the medical ends.

Edited embryos should not be created and brought to term—certainly not now, and I would say, not ever.  To be outraged over the former but not the laboratory creation of edited embryos is insufficient.  Both are outrages, although outrage over the recently-claimed birthing of edited babies in China is real, not “faux,” as one reaction held.  Still, the authors of that reaction are correct that one’s condemnation of the China event somehow justifies the laboratory work.  It does not. One last point: The Economist carried an essay decrying the birth of the edited twins in China as a case of “ethical dumping,” the practice of carrying out human subject research that would be disallowed in the West in other, perhaps less advanced (although China is certainly not backward), nations with fewer ethical scruples.  A valid point—but not one to cloak oneself in, while trying to justify the efforts to edit humans in ways that can be passed on from generation to generation.

Abortion, at any time, for any reason?

By Mark McQuain

Last week, Virginia delegate Kathy Tran introduced a bill to eliminate some current restrictions on late term abortions in the Commonwealth. During the committee hearing on the bill, she answered a question by one of the other committee members to the effect that her bill would permit a third trimester abortion up to and including the point of birth. That exchange may be heard here. She later “walked back” that particular comment as outlined here. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist by training, added his comments to the discussion on a call-in WTOP radio show, where he implied that the bill would additionally permit parent(s) and physician(s) to terminate the life of a “severely deformed”, “non-viable” infant after the birth of the infant, which may be heard here (the entire 50+ minute WTPO interview may be heard here). That particular bill is currently tabled (the actual bill may be read here).

These events deserve far more reflection and discussion than can be afforded in the small space of this blog. I want to discuss two comments by Governor Northam and then comment on expanding abortion to include the extreme limit of birth.

First, during his radio interview, the Governor added qualifiers to the status of the infant that are not only not in the bill submitted by Delegate Tran, they are specifically contrary to it. Section 18.2-74(c) of the Code of Virginia is amended by Tran’s House Bill No. 2491 to read ([w]hen abortion or termination of pregnancy lawful after second trimester of pregnancy):

“Measures for life support for the product of such abortion or miscarriage must shall be available and utilized if there is any clearly visible evidence of viability. “(markup/emphasis in the bill)

To be generous to the Governor, it is unclear why he qualified his comments the way he did, given that the bill is explicitly discussing a potentially viable infant. Options include that the Governor was simply ignorant of the specifics of Tran’s Bill (possibly), was actually purposefully advocating for infanticide (unlikely), or wanted to defend the loosening of restrictions on very late term abortions, clearly intended by her bill, by introducing at least one conditional situation that a number of people might initially consider reasonable (most likely). The firestorm caused by his so-called “post-birth-abortion” comment completely obscured any attention to the equally tragic portion of Tran’s Bill that eliminates a huge portion of the Code of Virginia section 18.2-76, which currently requires a much more specific informed consent process, inclusive of a pre-abortion fetal ultrasound to attempt to educate the woman on the nature of the human being she is desiring to abort.

The second comment by Governor Northam was made parenthetically while expressing his opinion that the abortion decision should be kept between a physician and the pregnant woman, and out of the hands of the legislature, “who are mostly men”. Does this imply all men be excluded from the abortion discussion or just male legislators? Should male obstetricians likewise be excluded from this discussion? Following the Governor’s comment to its logical conclusion, shouldn’t he refrain from similar comments/opinions regarding abortion since he is also a man? This is absurd. Representative government specifically, and civil discourse more generally, is not possible if ideas cannot be debated unless the particular people involved in the debate are all the same sex, same race, same ethnicity, same height, same weight, same age, etc…

Aborting a healthy, viable baby just prior to, or, at the very moment of, birth seems to me to be the least likely example of the type of abortion that anyone on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate would use to make the case that abortion is a good and necessary right. Presently, immediately after birth, the baby (finally) has the protection as a person under the Fourteenth Amendment. Eerily, as I have shared in this blog before, almost identical concepts were discussed during the 1972 oral arguments of Roe v. Wade, such as the following exchange between Justice Potter Stewart and attorney Sarah Weddington, who represented Roe. (see LINK for transcript or audio of the second reargument Oct 11, 1972, approximately one-third of the way through):

Potter Stewart: Well, if it were established that an unborn fetus is a person within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, you would have almost an impossible case here, would you not?

Sarah R. Weddington: I would have a very difficult case. [Laughter]

Potter Stewart: You certainly would because you’d have the same kind of thing you’d have to say that this would be the equivalent to after the child was born.

Sarah R. Weddington That’s right.

Potter Stewart: If the mother thought that it bothered her health having the child around, she could have it killed. Isn’t that correct?

Sarah R. Weddington: That’s correct.

I am one blogger who is praying that Governor Northam’s “post-birth-abortion” misunderstanding of Delegate Kathy Tran’s Bill liberalizing abortions through the end of the third trimester never causes Justice Potter’s 1972 infanticide equivalent to become a reality.

Gene editing for genetic enhancement

By Steve Phillips

I appreciate the prior posts by Jon Holmlund and Mark McQuain regarding the recent announcement of the birth of genetically modified twins in China. Much has been written about why this should not have been done, but something very significant has been left out of most of those responses. They have failed to mention that the scientist who created the genetically altered twins was doing a form of genetic enhancement. As I have noted before, the only real reason for anyone to do research on the genetic modification of human embryos is to enable the possibility of human genetic enhancement. The scientist involved in this situation has recognized that and directly pursued it. I suspect that his open pursuit of enhancement is one of the reasons why he has received such a negative response from those who otherwise support the permissibility of using human embryos for experimentation on germline genetic modification.

The primary argument presented for why this was wrong is that he has subjected two healthy human infants to the unknown risks of genetic modification without any corresponding medical benefit to the infants. The modification was disabling the gene that codes for a cell membrane receptor that the HIV virus commonly uses to gain entry into cells it infects. The hope was that these infants would have enhanced resistance to HIV infection, although not complete immunity to such infection. The infants themselves would not have been at increased risk for HIV without the modification, but the parents had a desire to have children with increased resistance because their father has HIV and is aware of the difficulty of living with the disease. Thus, the modification was being done to provide an enhancement desired by the parents and was not being done to infants would have otherwise suffered from a genetic disorder.

Most who support current research to develop effective techniques for human germline genetic modification take the position that the safety of doing this has not been established well enough to use the technique to create infants and that when the research does reach the point that genetically modified human infants are created it should only be in situations in which those infants would otherwise have had serious genetic disorders. They are correct that this technique is currently unsafe but fail to realize that we will probably never be able to establish the safety of this type of genetic modification, because that would require safety data from multiple generations of these infants’ offspring. The idea of restricting this technique to infants who would have been born with serious genetic disorders and the idea that this technique could be used to rid the world of these genetic disorders does not make sense. If a couple desires to have children and know that they are at risk to have a child with a serious genetic disorder and have no moral concerns about the destruction of human embryos involved in such things as genetic modification, they can pursue selection of an unaffected embryo using PGD and have no need to take on the additional risks of genetic modification. Using genetic modification to eliminate genetic diseases would require a Brave New World scenario in which all human beings are artificially conceived and natural conception is prohibited. Therefore, the only reason to pursue the genetic modification of human embryos is for the purpose of human enhancement.

Let me be clear that I agree that what the scientist has done is wrong because he has subjected these two infants to significant risk without any significant medical benefit. That is always wrong. However, the strength of the negative response from those who generally support research to develop human germline genetic modification is likely due to the fact that he has opened up to public scrutiny the real purpose of such research. He has also shown that it is not true that we can ignore ethical concerns about enhancement because we could regulate the use of genetic modification so that would not occur. Enhancement was the goal of the very first use of this technique to produce human infants.

The Genetic Singularity Point has Arrived

By Mark McQuain

November 2018 will go down as one of the most pivotal points in human history. Jon Holmlund covered the facts in his last blog entry. Regardless of what you think about the ethics of He Jiankui’s recent use of CRISPR to alter the human genomes of IVF embryos and his decision to intentionally bring those genetically altered twin girls to full term, one thing is perfectly clear – we humans are in charge now. Whether you believe in God or Nature as the Entity or Force that previously determined the arrangement of our genes, humans now sit at the adult table and will be gradually (rapidly?) making more of those genetic decisions. Like Kurzweil’s upcoming Singularity Point when computers develop sufficient artificial intelligence to design the next computer, humans have now reached the point where we can and are willing to design the next human.

The Genetic Singularity point has arrived.

While there are some scientists who are frustrated that our Institutional Review Boards and ethics committees have held us back this long, most of the rest of us are frankly stunned and uneasy that we have reached this point. But anyone who thinks our stunned uneasiness will prevent a repeat of this experiment or prevent a push to alter increasing portions of our human genome to change other genetic sequences will simply remain more frequently stunned and persistently uneasy, ethical arguments notwithstanding.

My reason for expecting this to be the case is I believe we will hear increasing demands of the form that now that we have the ability to change our genome, we have the responsibility to change our genome. In fact, it would not surprise me to see, in the not-to-distant future, insurance companies paying for the cost of IVF/CRISPR to modify your child’s genome to prevent disease/condition X to avoid paying for the later treatment of disease/condition X. Oh, you won’t be forced to do this. But, if you choose to rely on God or Nature for your baby’s genetic pattern, “we” won’t be responsible for his or her care. And, if big data can eventually be married to IVF/CRISPR to statistically improve one’s chances of having a smart/beautiful/athletic/successful baby, wouldn’t you want the same for your child? Since it will be our responsibility, how could a parent not choose to make their child the best that they could be?

This will be Gattaca writ large.

Being at the Genetic Singularity point, by definition, means we humans choose our next step. We have reached the point where we believe we are ready to select our future direction. It is up to us now to chart our own course. Our genetic trajectory is our responsibility. Our success or failure, or more broadly, our future good or bad, is finally ours to determine – really ours to assign.

So Man created mankind in his own image, in the image of Man he created them…And Man saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good…

Sprinting Down the Road on “The Children We Want”

By Mark McQuain

Almost exactly one year ago, this blog asked rhetorically whether your polygenic risk score was a good thing. Jon Holmlund raised this issue again last week, mentioning a company called Genomic Prediction. This company’s claim about the merits of their technology deserves close ethical scrutiny and is my reason for mentioning them yet again.

Genomic Prediction is increasingly calling for IVF clinics to use their version of expanded pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (EPGD), that is using big data analysis to select which embryo to implant – literally choosing the embryo you want based not upon the presence of single point genetic mutations known to be harmful but polygenic sequences (multiple genes, and even multiple upon multiple genes) statistically related to increased risk for complex diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Jon discussed the ethics of selecting “the children we want”, hinting that selecting for eye color or sex was “a step” further down the road.

Genomic Prediction is sprinting down that road.

Just last month, Genomic Prediction entered into discussion with some IVF clinics in the U.S. to screen embryos for “mental disability”. Per the firm’s co-founder Stephen Hsu:

“[EPGD] isn’t accurate enough to predict IQ for each embryo, but it can indicate which ones are genetic outliers, giving prospective parents the option of avoiding embryos with a high chance of an IQ 25 points below average”

This claim is entirely different from a claim that this particular embryo has this particular single point mutation that will cause this particular disease. Rather, the present claim of EPGD is better stated like this: When we saw this same polygenic pattern in some large number of prior embryos, a majority of them had an IQ 25 points below normal. Some questions naturally follow: Did any have above average IQs (and how far above average)? How big is the majority (75%, 85% or 97%)? How many embryos were studied to come up with this statistic?

Gamblers like Las Vegas odds makers are beginning to use big data analysis to better predict the outcome of sports contests. The result is that the Las Vegas odds makers can tell us that when number one ranked University of Alabama plays unranked Citadel in 1000 football games, Alabama will win 999 times. That also means that Citadel will win one of those 1000 games, and, prior to the start of the game, you never know which of those 1000 games you are watching. Last weekend, at halftime, Alabama and Citadel were tied 10-10. At that point, it looked like Citadel was going to win that one game out of 1000 and defy the odds makers.

And that is the point. Many have already decided that it is good to terminate the life of an embryo if he or she has a point mutation for a serious disease. Is it just as good to terminate the life of an embryo if he or she has the mere risk of some non-disease trait we find undesirable like the wrong eye color, sex or intelligence? Do we really have sufficient data to make this decision? How much risk is too much or too little? How do we know if the decision is a good one? Will the decision get us the “Children We Want”? Is it really our decision to make?

It is necessary we answer questions like these if we wish to take on the responsibility to decide who lives and who dies, a decision that we previously relegated, depending on your worldview, to God or Nature.

Abortion by mail, part 2

By Steve Phillips

Last week I wrote about a European organization that has begun providing the medicines used for medical abortions by mail to women seeking abortions in the US following an online consultation. This violates the current restrictions that the FDA has on the prescribing of mifepristone, the primary medicine used for medical abortion. The restrictions exist due to safety concerns with the use of the drug. Those who think that those restrictions should be ended cite FDA statistics that show that serious harm to women who take the drug are quite rare. I concluded that the data indicate that it is hard to support the restrictions based on the risk of harm to a woman who chooses to use mifepristone.

I mentioned that there is another, somewhat perverse, risk that is usually not discussed which enters into the decision about whether the prescribing of should be limited to a certified prescriber dispensing the medicine in a clinical setting. That is the risk to the embryo/fetus. Those who support the use of mifepristone cite an effectiveness rate of 95-97%. That means that over 95% of the time the use of mifepristone in early pregnancy causes the death of the embryo/fetus and along with the use of misoprostol the pregnancy is ended with a medically induced abortion. In the 3 to 5% of cases in which this does not occur, some result in the death of the embryo/fetus, but the products of conception are retained within the uterus and may present some risk to the mother. As noted above, the observed risk to the mother turns out to be quite low. Sometimes when the process of medical abortion fails the embryo/fetus may survive. Mifepristone is an anti-progesterone. We know that medicines which alter the hormonal environment of an embryo can cause congenital anomalies. Therefore, there is a risk that if an embryo does not die and a subsequent surgical abortion is not done an infant may be born who suffers from congenital anomalies due to exposure to the medicines which were intended to cause a medical abortion. To prevent this, it is recommended that women who take the medicines for medical abortion who do not abort within the usual period of time have a surgical abortion. That would be the primary reason to support the FDA’s requirement that these medicines only be dispensed in a clinical setting by a certified prescriber. The role of the certified prescriber is to make sure that no embryo who is exposed to mifepristone survives to be born with the possible congenital anomalies.

Thus, we have a situation in which our society, as represented by the FDA, has decided that it is permissible to give a pregnant woman a medicine that will kill the embryo/fetus living inside her, but only if the medicine is dispensed in such a way that it can be assured that the embryo/fetus will be killed and not survive with an abnormality caused by the medicine. I said this was perverse. It is what we get when we have a society that puts a higher value on avoiding suffering than the value placed on human life.

Abortion by mail

By Steve Phillips

A recent article on the CNN website reports on a European organization called Aid Access which has recently made the medicines used for medical abortion available to women in the US by mail. The organization utilizes telemedicine in the form of online consultations to prescribe the abortion drugs from a pharmacy in India to be mailed to the woman desiring an abortion in the US. It is clear that this violates FDA regulations. To ensure the safe use of mifepristone the FDA currently requires that the drug, which has no medical indication other than induction of abortion, is only available to be dispensed in clinics, medical offices and hospitals, by or under the supervision of a certified prescriber. At issue is whether those restrictions should be lifted to allow more open prescribing of mifepristone.

The appropriate reason for the FDA to have additional restrictions on certain drugs is safety. Those who advocate lifting the restrictions on mifepristone argue that the safety of this drug has been established and cite FDA statistics that the risk of death from using the drug to induce medical abortion is only one in 155,000. This makes its use much safer than either surgical abortion or continuing a pregnancy to term. Those who oppose lifting the restrictions counter with concerns that the unsupervised use of the drug may also lead to failure to diagnose ectopic pregnancy and can result in situations that require surgical intervention, which may have increased risk in an unsupervised patient.

While there are risks to the use of mifepristone, it is hard to make the case that the risk of harm to the mother is high enough to warrant the additional restrictions that currently are required for this drug. That makes it hard to justify limiting access due to true concern about the risk to the woman whom uses it. This is not the case for another regulation regarding abortion. Laws that require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as outpatient surgery centers have a clear justification. Surgical abortion has similar risks to other outpatient surgeries, so it is reasonable to require the same safety measures for an abortion clinic and an outpatient surgery center.

There is one risk related to the use of mifepristone, which is not usually discussed, which does support the additional restrictions on its distribution, but in a somewhat perverse way. That will be the focus of my next post.