Gene Editing: God’s Will or God’s Won’t

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

Give God a rest; do your own gene editing (and thinking). On August 2, 2017 the New York Times headline read, “In Breakthrough, Scientists Edit a Dangerous Mutation from Genes in a Human Embryo.” The mutation was of a gene called MYBPC3, and the result of that mutation is a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This disease affects 1 in 500 people. Its victims are typically young athletes. CRISPR-cas9 is the technology used to accomplish the gene editing. More precisely, a synthetic healthy DNA sequence was injected into an egg cell fertilized by a sperm cell with the mutated gene. This healthy DNA sequence was supposed to be copied into the newly created embryo. In fact, however, the maternal DNA was copied, thereby correcting the paternal mutation in 72% of the resulting embryos. A total of 54 embryos were created, later destroyed, after genetic analysis had been done. The remaining embryos were genetically mosaic. This research received worldwide attention.

Image description: a black and white image of an 8-cell human embryo, day 3. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

I want to raise two questions. How should we assess this research and its future possible uses from an ethical perspective? How should we assess public policies designed to regulate this research now and in the future? I am going to give more attention to this latter question in the context of a liberal, pluralistic, democratic political culture because many people would demand that the research itself be outlawed, not just regulated. The relevant question to ask is this: What sort of justification must be given for regulating or banning gene-editing technologies used to create or modify human embryos? The short answer I will defend in response to that question is that regulations must satisfy public reason and public interest requirements (as explained below).

From an ethical perspective, gene-editing technology represents considerable potential benefit, as the example of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy above suggests. At least 200 single-gene disorders could be corrected at the embryonic or pre-embryonic level, thereby preventing premature death or substantial diminishment of quality of life in these future possible children (as well as potential descendants of those children). To be clear, no gene-editing technology is ready for clinical application. Off-target effects remain a problem. From an ethical perspective, the risk-benefit ratio of such interventions today weighs too heavily on the risk side. Researchers, however, are confident that these risks can be overcome.

Assuming that the safety issues can be effectively managed, another ethical objection is that these future possible children (maybe for several generations) would not have consented to such fundamental interventions. I do not see this as a compelling objection. Parents today must consent to very risky surgery or other medical interventions in a two-year old child that could result in the death of that child or substantial lifelong impairment. We have to trust the judgment of parents and physicians in such circumstances. We have to believe they are all acting in the best interests of that child (absent compelling evidence to the contrary). This seems perfectly analogous to what would be occurring with gene-editing of an embryo. (For a broad overview of relevant ethical principles, see Wolpe et al., 2017.)

I now want to switch to concerns in the context of public policy. What sort of political justification would be needed to legitimize the complete banning of gene-editing research on human embryos? Here are two answers that are entirely “out of bounds” in a liberal, pluralistic society: (1) doing gene-editing of embryos is “playing God,” and (2) destroying embryos should never be regarded as an acceptable part of medical research.

The phrase “playing God” invokes amorphous religious associations, deliberately and arrogantly engaging in some life-or-death activity that is the exclusive prerogative of God. However, if this is supposed to be a compelling argument for public policy purposes, then large areas of medical practice would have to be outlawed as well. It might well be the will of God that I die from my heart attack, but I still want my surgeon to be agnostic and do the bypass surgery needed to save my life. God is typically described as being omnipotent, though millions of embryos are created annually with thousands of serious genetic disorders. Allowing those future possible children to suffer the awful consequences of those disorders by forbidding the development of the technology that could correct those disorders looks like willful social negligence, not impiety.

Image description: a bone cancer cell (nucleus in light blue) at the microscopic level. Image source: ZEISS Microscopy/Flickr Creative Commons.

Critics of gene-editing rail against the possible, speculative harms this technology could unleash on future generations of children, all the while ignoring the very real harms current actual children are having to suffer as a consequence of these genetic disorders. This is not just shortsighted; it is ethically and politically perverse. Virtually everyone agrees that it would be premature today to do embryonic gene-editing with the intent of bringing that future possible child to birth. However, nothing would justify laws that would forbid going forward with the research until such time as it would be safe to introduce into the clinic.

Some religious critics will object to the destruction of embryos that will be integral to the development of this technology. We noted above that 54 embryos were created and destroyed in connection with the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy research. Some religious critics will see those embryos as having the moral status of persons with the same rights as you and I. However, this is where public reason must be invoked as the appropriate basis for formulating policy in a liberal, pluralistic society.

Public reason (Rawls, 1996) must be neutral or agnostic with respect to all religious belief systems or other comprehensive worldviews. From an objective, scientific perspective embryos have no capacity to feel pain, no consciousness, no interests, and no personal identity. Embryos are not mini-persons. Some religious adherents may believe otherwise. They are free to affirm that belief in the private social space of their religious community. However, they may not seek to create laws that would effectively impose that belief on citizens who did not share that belief. This would be an illegitimate, illiberal use of the coercive powers of government unless they were able to justify such laws through an appeal to public reasons and related public interests.

Public reasons are reasons that all free and equal reasonable citizens as citizens can accept as reasonable, as consistent with the best science and fair terms of cooperation in a just society. Public reasons are the currency of rational democratic deliberation. Public interests are interests that all citizens have, and that could not be adequately protected or enhanced without the use of the coercive powers of government to control those who would threaten those interests. Protecting air and water quality would be a clear example of a public interest.

A liberal, pluralistic society recognizes and respects many reasonable ways of living a good life. Individuals are free to order their lives in accord with many different reasonable values that do not represent a threat to the rights of others or to various public interests. Consequently, such a society will accept that some people will refuse to use gene-editing technology in the future to alter the genetic endowment of their future possible children. This is political respect for procreative liberty.

It would be illiberal and illegitimate for some political group to use the coercive powers of the state to force religious individuals to use gene-editing technology, contrary to their religious beliefs. Likewise, these religious individuals must be mutually respectful of the procreative liberty rights of others to use gene-editing technology to alter the genetic endowments of their future possible children. This would include paying taxes to support the medical and scientific research needed to develop safe and effective versions of embryonic gene-editing, keeping in mind the taxes needed to pay for the health care needs of children born with cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy or any number of other medical problems that could have been avoided with judicious gene-editing.

In conclusion, there can be reasonable disagreement regarding various uses of embryonic gene-editing technology. However, that disagreement will have to invoke public reasons and public interests. God’s will and God’s won’t are not public interests.

Fleck smallLeonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

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