Why edited embryos won’t lead to designer babies or eugenics (unless we want it too)
The UK became the first country to officially approve gene editing research in human embryos on Monday. The HFEA decision means experiments in which the genes of embryos are manipulated will likely begin at the Francis Crick Institute within the next few months.
Gene editing (GE) technologies are immensely powerful. They have already been used to manipulate mosquitos so they cannot carry diseases like malaria or Zika. They have been used in medicine to reprogram human immune cells to target cancer. When used for research purposes, they promise to greatly increase our knowledge of genetics and human heredity. This will lead to a better understanding of disease, which in turn will allow better treatments – including better drugs.
The study approved by the HFEA has precisely these aims. It seeks to investigate the role that different genes play in early pregnancy. Only around 13% of all fertilized embryos survive the first trimester of pregnancy. We do not understand why this is. This study will help solve this mystery, and could result in better conventional therapies to combat infertility and miscarriage.
Many have argued that this study in unethical and the HFEA has made a horrible mistake in approving it. For some this is because the research involves human embryos. Those who think it is immoral to perform any experiments using human embryos have clear reasons to object to this study. However, studies like this are hardly uncommon or novel. Last year 20 experiments using human embryos were approved by the HFEA. The fact that such research encounters little opposition indicates a general acceptance of some types of embryo research. Given the fact that embryos are unable to experience suffering, some research on them seems permissible if four further conditions are met. 1) the embryos are never implanted into a woman; 2) the embryos are destroyed within 14 days of development; 3) the research is performed on embryos which would otherwise be destroyed; and 4) the research is performed on embryos whose parents’ consent for them to be used in research. The gene editing study approved by the HFEA meets all these conditions. The mere fact that it makes use of human embryos makes it no more or less ethically problematic than other forms of commonly performed embryo research.
Others have criticised the study because they claim it will lead to designer babies and eugenics. Calum MacKellar, Director of Research of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, said:
“Allowing the gene editing of embryos opens the road to genetically modifying all the descendants of a person as well as full blown eugenics which was condemned by all civilised societies after the Second World War.”
In a similar vein Dr David King, director of the watchdog group Human Genetics Alert, said “This is the first step in a well mapped-out process leading to GM babies, and a future of consumer eugenics.”
The only way gene editing technologies could result in designer babies is if they are used for reproductive purposes rather than research. Reproductive uses of GE are illegal in the UK. The UK has a unique legal position, being one of the only countries around the world to allow GE on embryos for research, but have a ban on any reproductive uses. The only way reproductive uses of GE could proceed in the UK is if changes are made to the law. As the UK is a liberal democracy, it is unlikely the laws will be changed if there is strong public opposition to designer babies. Of course – many think at some point in the future, if these technologies are safe and have been shown to be useful in the prevention of disease, public opposition will largely disappear. At this point there may be a push to change the law. But this is not something to fear – this is simply how democracies work.
The greatest concern with human gene editing is not what will occur in the UK, but what will happen in the rest of the world. In some countries there is poor oversight of scientific research; and in many countries there is no explicit bans on the reproductive use of GE. In these jurisdictions there is a real risk someone will try and use gene editing for reproductive purposes before the technology is ready.
Rather than debating the ethics of the research approved by the HFEA, a study with minimal risks and significant potential benefits, we should be discussing strategies for the worldwide oversight of gene editing research. Indeed, we should be encouraging more countries to adopt the UK model of permitting gene editing on embryos for research, but not reproduction.