The UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ bold conclusion that genetically modifying the DNA of a human embryo could be “morally permissible” if it is in the child’s interests has sparked concerns about the moral, ethical, and legal implications of the conclusion.
The medical ethics body’s new report, called ‘Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues’ urges more research into the practical safety and the effectiveness of genetic modification. While calling for a broad debate on the issue, it stresses that from a moral standpoint, DNA-altering procedures are permissible.
“It is our view that genome editing is not morally unacceptable in itself,” Nuffield Council working group chair Karen Yeung said. “There is no reason to rule it out in principle,” she stressed, while adding that the societal implications of such genetic manipulation would be “extensive, profound and long-term.”
Crucially, and controversially, the report finds that genetic editing is permissible not only to cure inherited diseases and defective genes, but also to genetically enhance human beings before they are born, so long as the procedure does not have ill effects for society. The latter sentiment has prompted concerns that it could lead to a dystopian world of designer babies.
Human Genetics Alert director Dr. David King called the Nuffield Council’s report “an absolute disgrace.” “We have had international bans on eugenic genetic engineering for 30 years. But this group of scientists thinks it knows better, even though there is absolutely no medical benefit to this whatever…The people of Britain decided 15 years ago that they don’t want GM food. Do you suppose they want GM babies?” he asked.
UK law prohibits the creation of designer babies. Currently, the law only allows for the genetic editing of human embryos for research purposes, after which the embryos must be destroyed. Scientists in a number of other countries have been experimenting with rewriting the DNA bound up in living cells in sperm, eggs, and embryos in an effort to cure inherited genetic diseases. However, researchers have warned that the procedure for doing so, including the use of the so-called gene-editing CRISPR/Cas9 technology, remains unsafe, and can actually cause damage to the DNA it’s meant to fix.
‘Gilded Age’ of Genetic Modification?
The issue of ‘designer babies’, i.e. babies manipulated in a lab at the genetic level to meet certain physical, appearance, intelligence, or other characteristics, has been widely discussed in society and popular culture, with one primary concern being that the technology could become a tool for the super-rich.
“In practical terms, they have thrown down a red carpet for unrestricted use of inheritable genetic engineering, and a gilded age in which some are treated as genetic ‘haves’ and the rest of us as ‘have-nots’,” Center for Genetics and Society scientist Marcy Darnovsky told the Guardian, commenting on the Nuffield Council’s report.
Based on its findings, the Nuffield Council now recommends that the government establish a special body to promote a broad public discussion of the issue. If the law is changed, gene editing should be considered on a case-by-case basis, the report concludes.
The report prompted concerns among social media users over the potentially frightening moral implications of its conclusions.
Others felt as though there was notthing left to do but make jokes about the controversial subject.