Human embryo editing: Attention is a good thing

If you’re even a little scientific-minded, you’ve probably heard of the recent editing of human embryos by a team in China. It’s worth pointing out at the outset that the embryos were non-viable – they never could have been born. They were failed fertility treatments where an egg was fertilised by two sperm, a situation that cannot lead to a baby. But, while they were not potential people per se, they were human, and ethical questions abound.

8-cell human embryo
8-cell human embryo. Photo: RWJMS IVF Program

The first is an interesting distinction between what many see as the ethical question and what some scientists see as the real issue. It’s interesting, scientifically I think, that the ethical problem for those in the field is that any editing would be inheritable, and could have ‘unpredictable effects on future generations‘. But trawl any tabloid for the story and what you’ll find are the words ‘designer babies‘ somewhere near the top. This is what people fear it will mean: the power of the rich to choose the perfect Aryan superchild, overthrowing the natural order of things.

But it’s worth remembering that the precise reason for the Chinese team’s experiments was to see if a particular genetic disease could be edited out (with current technology it was a failure, by the way). There will always be those that argue that any tinkering is against the ‘laws’ – of nature, of god – and that it is bad full stop. Personally, I think genetic editing to remove disease is only the next step in a long line of ‘miraculous’ interventions. If I didn’t have my appendix removed at age 12 I’d be dead. We transplant hearts now, regularly. In the UK, the government recently approved ‘three-parent babies‘ to prevent the passing of genetic disease from mother to child.

Yes, this kind of editing could allow future generations one day to possibly choose certain aspects of their children’s appearance. But I wonder how often slippery-slope arguments are borne out? How can we tell which ones are extreme and unrealistic (like the idea that a ‘gay marriage bill may lead to lesbian queen and artificially inseminated heir’) and which are legitimate concerns?

Out in the open

While debates continue to rage behind the scenes on everything from whether journals should have published the paper to what restrictions agencies place on funding such research, it’s the debates in the public that I think might be most important. I often wonder if genetically modified foods would be more widely accepted if there had been more of a public debate about them before they really got going – to air all the dirty laundry as it were.

Ethical debates cannot be held purely in the ivory tower of science; there will always be something missed by not exposing the issue to the world that will use it, even if it does mean coming up against fearful anger and wilful misunderstanding. This is not an issue with a wealth of science and consensus, like climate change. It deserves a more open platform. I think Dr Ewan Birney, Associate Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute puts it clearly here:

At a broader level, it is important to stress that scientists work under ethical rules, and the ethical rules are fundamentally societal, not scientific (though scientific advances often pose the question). This consensus position does change (for example, human transplants in the 1950s were viewed far less positively than now) but it is important this conversation happens in a consensus, societal way.

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