UK bioethics council: It may be ‘morally acceptable’ to genetically modify babies

fetal tissue stem cells bioethics

It may sound like science fiction, but it’s reality across the pond, where a United Kingdom bioethics body said in July that it might be morally acceptable to edit human genes, especially if it helps to cure a disease. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB) said that changing the DNA of a human embryo could be “morally permissible” if it was in the future child’s interests, and did not add to the kinds of inequalities that already divide society. But troubling headlines and stories show the blurred moral reality pervading the culture of life, and the ways in which the field of bioethics is seemingly no longer concerned about ethics at all. The Independent reported:

Letting parents use new gene-editing technology to pick characteristics of their unborn child can be “morally acceptable” as long as it doesn’t increase social inequalities, an influential medical ethics group has said.

The Guardian wrote:

The creation of babies whose DNA has been altered to give them what parents perceive to be the best chances in life has received a cautious green light in a landmark report from a leading UK ethics body.

READ: ‘Progress’ or discrimination? Why we should question the ethics of gene editing

In a 2016 bioethics review by the Nuffield Council, the body concluded genome alteration could be permissible, especially if it means correcting the possibility of a baby inheriting a disease. The NCB defines the term as “the deliberate alteration of a selected DNA sequence in a living cell”:

A strand of DNA is cut at a specific point and naturally existing cellular repair mechanisms, then fix the broken DNA strands. The way they are repaired can affect gene function and new DNA sequences can be delivered when the DNA is cut and act as templates for generating an altered sequence. Genome editing techniques can be used to delete sections of DNA or alter how a gene functions: for example, by changing a variant that may give rise to disease to one that functions normally.

But some say that altering DNA this way leads to the “designer baby” culture, something The Guardian points out is not ruled out by the report. Jackie Leach Scully, professor of social ethics and bioethics at Newcastle University, and a co-author of the report, said heritable genome editing may one day become an option for parents “to try and secure what they think is the best start in life” for their future children.

Another Guardian story explored this issue prior to the NCB’s announcement last month, and noted these troubling possibilities:

Any edits made in embryos will affect all of the cells in the person and will be passed on to their children, so it is crucial to avoid harmful mistakes and side effects. Engineering human embryos also raises the uneasy prospect of designer babies, where embryos are altered for social rather than medical reasons; to make a person taller or more intelligent, for example. Traits like these can involve thousands of genes, most of them unknown. So for the time being, designer babies are a distant prospect.

READ: China troubles ethicists with embryo destruction and frightening possibilities in genetic engineering

While there are current laws in place to prevent the alteration of genes for such purposes, the moral divide is growing less hazy for some. Meanwhile, this year, exploration began into the gene altering of animals that are part of the food chain. The NCB says:

In 2018 the Council will begin work on an inquiry into potential uses of genome editing in farmed animals. This includes livestock reared as part of the human food chain and to provide other products for human consumption but will not include laboratory animals….

Human life is unique, and altering DNA to make people more like a society thinks they “should” be is a dangerous curve on a winding road. This sort of philosophy coupled with the scientific capabilities is a strong reminder of the adage, “just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”

The full NCB bioethics report is available here.

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