What’s Wrong with Designer Genes?

Article by and

Guest Contributor

In April, a group of Chinese scientists announced a world first: They had modified human embryos using gene editing technology.

The announcement was met with skepticism and widespread disapproval. Nature and Science, two leading publications, rejected the study, and scientists and bioethicists across the political spectrum claimed that this type of genetic modification crossed an impermissible ethical line.

We agree, and unflinchingly reject this line of research, and we believe the church needs to become aware of this latest scientific development in genetic research, why it was attempted, the fallout and its consequences, and what specific ethical lines it crosses for us as Christians.

Bioethical Concerns

The technique the scientists used has the potential for correcting genetic errors in mature cells, while not affecting the patient’s reproductive DNA (carried in the eggs or sperm, often referred to as germline cells). The technique holds promise for good genetic interventions and has been used to modify bone marrow cells in order to increase resistance to HIV. (For more on the technique, see the short appendix at the end of this article.)

However, applying this powerful technique to embryonic cells, rather than mature cells, raises the following three concerns, among others:

1. Safety and Unforeseeable Consequences

Of the 86 embryos the Chinese scientists reportedly used, 71 survived for two days. Of the 54 that were tested, 28 showed a genetic change, or had been “edited.” The unhealthy gene was successfully removed. However, a corrected or healthy segment was spliced into only a few. Additionally, the editing complex did not confine itself to the targeted abnormal gene, but changed normal parts of the DNA.

An additional safety concern is that only a fraction of the embryos’ cells with targeted DNA sequences were changed, rather than all of the cells. As the researchers themselves suggest, it would be impossible to confirm whether the intervention had been successful, as the embryo could appear either edited or unedited in follow-up testing. Further, there is no way to predict the interaction with other genes in the cell. There could be additional unintended mutations that show up in other gene segments. Or there could be effects that only appear in a future generation, as has happened with other medical technologies.

In short, the experiment was a failure: None of the embryos met two basic criteria of “precisely altered genes in every cell with no accompanying DNA damage.”

2. Germline Manipulation

The stated goal of gene editing in human embryos is noble: eradication of serious inheritable diseases. Until now, gene research involved adult cells, seeking a cure for only a particular patient, who would be protected by normal safeguards such as informed consent. Gene editing of reproductive DNA is infinitely more powerful, irreversibly changing future generations.

In the wake of the announcements by the Chinese researchers, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, stated unequivocally that germline manipulation “has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.” This includes researchers and ethicists who approve of other research that destroys human embryos. Some have called for at least a moratorium, even as at least four groups of Chinese researchers seem to be plowing ahead.

Beyond concerns of safety for the human gene pool and the potential for grave and long-term harm to the children born with such alterations, the international community has been almost universally opposed to germline interventions that permanently alter human DNA. However, we question how long the line of opposition will hold. If scientists succeed in improving success rates, the lure of eradicating life-threatening and disabling diseases may prove too powerful to resist.

Some gene therapies can be conducted ethically. Adult cell interventions for the therapeutic benefit of a particular patient require the patient to properly consent to the risks involved with the procedure. By way of contrast, future generations are unable to consent to a pre-emptive alteration of their DNA via germline intervention. Of course, parents often make important medical decisions on behalf of their children, but this is a permanent decision, and one that at this point is completely experimental. Such interventions, even if still speculative, raise important questions on the nature of procreation and the appropriateness of technological intervention in the formation or production of children.

Thinking as Christians

Apart from the mainstream bioethical considerations, gene editing also raises a variety of concerns from a Christian perspective.

Children Are a Gift, Not a Product

This type of direct intervention threatens to distort our understanding of children as gift to children being treated as products of choice and intention. That is, germline manipulation seems to regard the child as a product that can be improved upon, rather than a gift from God. It encourages the rejection of embryos that are not successfully edited, which stands in marked contrast to a Christian posture of unconditional welcome and hospitality. While the interventions under consideration are intended to eliminate serious diseases, the temptation to produce designer babies is not far away.

Gene Editing Can Become Eugenics

A Christian perspective of humanity as complex physical and spiritual beings stands in conflict with contemporary trends that reduce our nature solely to genetic information. Tendencies toward genetic reductionism have been coupled with a soft revival of eugenic attitudes. The eugenics of previous eras declared some to be superior, often at the expense of others’ lives. The new eugenics passively uses prenatal genetic tests to eliminate genetic diseases through abortion. Rates of abortion for those parents who receive an adverse diagnosis for the child with a genetic abnormality such as Down syndrome are distressingly high.

With an increasing awareness of how our DNA contributes to who we are as physical beings, there is an increasing danger to reduce persons to their genetics. Particularly in the context of genetic abnormality and disability, what is often lost in these dilemmas is the humanity of the disabled — their personhood and the reality that they also are bearers of the image of God. Some wonder how people with congenital disabilities will be welcomed in societies that actively seek to eliminate genetic diseases through germline interventions or by preventing the birth of any children who might carry a “defective” gene.

Justice for the Unborn, Not Partnering with Evil

One aspect that should be of concern to Christians and the broader culture is the matter of justice: Will these therapies be so costly that they exclude the disadvantaged, and may even exacerbate already existing domestic and global socio-economic inequalities? Questions of allocation and access are common to many types of emerging technologies and are a special concern for those that offer potential not only for therapeutic use, but also for the possibility of human enhancement or alteration of the human species as such.

Also, given the high rate of embryos destroyed in these experiments (100%), what would we do with any knowledge that is gained from this and future research? This point raises significant questions about participating or complicity with immoral acts. The alleviation of suffering is a good and appropriate goal for medicine and biotechnology research. However, they are not ultimate goods, and cannot redeem immoral actions to achieve them. For those considering this procedure as an experimental therapeutic intervention, serious questions are raised with respect to the current maturity of this technology, and thus the likelihood for serious harm outweighs any potential benefit.

Finally, with respect to questions of complicity and significant sacrifice of embryonic human life in the pursuit of highly experimental research, this approach knowingly sacrifices the lives of some to potentially improve someone else’s life.

For these reasons, we join the chorus of voices condemning the actions of these researchers. At the very least, we affirm the call for transparent public discussions surrounding the role of genetic interventions and a moratorium on germline interventions. And as Christians, we unflinchingly reject this line of research. The moral cost cannot be justified, no matter how noble the goal.