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.
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
“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.