A group of prominent scientists and bioethicists from seven countries published an editorial in the journal Nature last week calling for a worldwide moratorium on heritable genome editing. They want to prevent any more of their peers from engineering gene-edited babies like Chinese scientist He Jiankui did last year, but Christian ethicists say the proposal falls short.
Heritable genome editing, or germline editing, refers to modifying the genes in sperm, eggs, or embryos, resulting in genetic changes that future generations can inherit. The authors of the Nature editorial say science needs to establish the safety of gene-editing procedures before allowing them because of the high risk of introducing unintended, off-target mutations. Modifying a gene to reduce the risk of a certain disease can often increase the risk of other diseases. Changing a common gene mutation to decrease the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, for instance, also increases the risk of schizophrenia, Crohn’s disease, and obesity.
The scientists want nations to agree voluntarily to outlaw any germline editing until scientific, medical, ethical, and moral issues are considered and international guidelines developed. The proposed moratorium does not include gene editing in nonreproductive cells because such procedures do not involve changes that would affect future generations. It also would not ban germline editing for research purposes that do not include implantation of modified embryos.
While a moratorium may represent a step in the right direction, it does nothing to protect human embryos from destruction in research labs or address the problems of tampering with God’s design for the human race. David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, called the proposal disappointingly shortsighted.
“Scientifically unsound and ethically problematic experiments on human embryos, including creating gene-edited embryos in the lab and then destroying them, would still be allowed and even encouraged,” he told me. “We call instead for the full prohibition of gene-editing experiments on embryos or germ cells—not just a speed bump.”
Other scientists, such as Helen O’Neill, a molecular geneticist at University College London, also spoke out against the moratorium for different reasons. She said a worldwide ban is unnecessary because many countries forbid human germline editing, and she worries a formal moratorium could restrict research funding, according to Science Media Centre.
But Jing-Bao Nie, one of the editorial’s signatories, noted that the Chinese scientist He produced the gene-edited babies despite regulations. The inadequacy of the Chinese and international responses to the unethical experiment concerns him the most, Nie said in a statement: “By putting blame completely on the rogue scientist individually, the institutional failings are overlooked.”
The editorial’s authors further note the dangers of genetic editing meant only for enhancement, such as modifications to improve memory or muscle strength or even to introduce new biological functions like the ability to see infrared light. Gene editing for enhancement could make parents feel pressured to use the technology to give their children a competitive edge, could put poorer parents who can’t afford the procedure at a disadvantage, and could cause both physical and psychological harm to children. “Genetic enhancement could even divide humans into subspecies,” they wrote.