The Case Against Human Gene Editing

Conservatives and progressives both have reasons for opposing it.

The genetic engineering of human beings has been a dream and a nightmare since scientists first speculated about it a century ago. Futurists and transhumanists have long thought that genetic engineering could radically improve the human race, extending our lifespans or boosting our intelligence, while more responsible scientists have suggested that genetic modification could be used to cure diseases like Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs, and other deadly inherited conditions.

Over the past few years, a new technology has emerged that seems to finally make precise genetic modifications of human beings possible. This week, scientists, ethicists, and policy experts from the American, Chinese, and British national academies of science are gathered for a conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss the prospects of editing human genes.

The new technology that has brought questions about genetically modifying humans back on the agenda is called CRISPR-Cas9. It stands above previous methods for genetic engineering in both its precision and its simplicity. CRISPR-Cas9 relies on a single enzyme system that can be guided by small strings of RNA molecules to any site in the genome. Older methods for genetic engineering required scientists to find or design new proteins to target different sites in the genome, a technically demanding and labor-intensive task. The RNA molecules that CRISPR-Cas9 relies on, on the other hand, can simply be ordered from any number of biotechnology companies.

What makes this new technology especially controversial is the prospect that it could be used to modify the human “germline” — that is, that it could be used to make changes that would not only affect a particular patient but would also be passed on to that patient’s children, and so on through the generations. Modifying genes in a human embryo is one way to accomplish this, and speakers at the meeting also discussed a different form of germline engineering, one that involves modifying the stem cells that produce sperm. This can be done either by performing gene therapy on men directly or by extracting their stem cells and then genetically modifying them in the lab to produce genetically modified sperm that could be used for in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination.

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All too often, deliberations about new biotechnologies seem to focus on managing public opinion so that scientists won’t have to worry about the pesky obstructions of democratic oversight or moral arguments. Those who take a strong moral stance against the manipulation of human genetics or the destruction of human embryos are generally not welcome at these kinds of meetings. After all, the suggestion that we should not pursue some scientific avenues because they represent the unjust exploitation of human beings spoils the whole idea of coming to a consensus about how best to “move forward.”

Deliberations about new biotechnologies seem to focus on managing public opinion so that scientists won’t have to worry about the pesky obstructions of democratic oversight or moral arguments.

This consensus-based approach was well on display in the statement released by the meeting’s organizers recommending that modification of the germline not be done until the technology can be made safe and “there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application,” and furthermore that “as scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis.” Recommendations like these ignore the possibility that there might be some wisdom in the view that it is morally wrong to genetically design our children, or that some future “consensus” that we come to hold as our “societal views evolve” might be foolish and misguided. What’s more, the organizers recommended allowing the genetic modification of human embryos, on the condition that “the modified cells should not be used to establish a pregnancy.”

There were unfortunately no conservative or pro-life scholars at this meeting who might have pushed back against this technological boosterism and callous disregard for unborn human life. Yet the absence thus far of conservative and pro-life voices does not mean that everyone at the conference was resolutely in favor of genetic engineering. There were a number of liberal critics of biotechnology, notably Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, who made a compelling case against using gene editing to modify the human germline. On the other side were ethicists like John Harris, a utilitarian philosopher at Manchester University, who demanded that genetic engineering be made available with only minimal restrictions. Many of the scientists were very excited about what this technology might enable us to do, though some, like Eric Lander, a geneticist at MIT, expressed skepticism about whether the genetic modification of human embryos would have much practical use.

#share#The scientists speaking at the conference tend to see the moral issues in terms of individual patients. Their focus is on whether these new technologies can be safe and effective ways of treating disease and satisfying the preferences and desires of individuals. But progressive critics argue that these scientists are missing the broader social context in which the technologies would be implemented, and the ways in which biotechnology might contribute to the oppression of marginalized groups.

Both these perspectives can be valuable. Focusing on what is good for individual patients can be an important corrective to the tyrannical impulse to use medicine and public-health measures not for actual human beings, but for what Paul Ramsey called “that celebrated non-patient, the human species.” But the progressives are also right that medical procedures, especially those dealing with reproduction, are not simply about the patient and the doctor: The child must also be considered, and we should remember as well the kinds of social and economic pressures that might be driving individuals to seek medical interventions to prevent the birth of a child with disabilities.

Conservatives and today’s progressives ought to share a concern about the risks of a potential new type of eugenics to harm minorities and the disabled.

Both the scientists, with their emphasis on individuals, and the progressives, with their emphasis on group oppression, draw lessons from the dark history of eugenics, the Progressive Era movement to sterilize the “unfit” that had a baleful influence on the laws of many nations, including the United States, in the early 20th century. At the conference, science historian Daniel J. Kevles gave a presentation on the origins of eugenics in the sciences of genetics and statistics and discussed the crude racial stereotypes and prejudices held by many Americans in the early 1900s. He described how the eugenics movement harmed and oppressed racial minorities and people with disabilities. (Kevles’s book In the Name of Eugenics is an excellent introduction to this dark chapter in our history.) Conservatives and today’s progressives ought to share a concern about the risks of a potential new type of eugenics to harm minorities and the disabled.

But conservatives are uniquely suited to point out that gene editing unites two errors characteristic of our age: genetic perfectionism and an overemphasis on individual autonomy. First, we conservatives understand that the family is the foundational unit of society, and that its basic structure — a married man and woman having children whom they love and care for unconditionally — should not be tinkered with by social or biological engineers. The eugenics movement put an abstraction, the human gene pool, above that fundamental unit of society, the family.

Second, biotechnologies like gene editing risk combining the problem of genetic perfectionism with an extreme emphasis on individual autonomy. Gene editing is thought to offer a way for parents to maximize their control over the properties of their offspring, transforming a relationship that should be characterized by unconditional love and acceptance into one in which children are seen as products of their parents’ desires and wishes, to be provisionally accepted and molded in accord with parental preferences.

This is how we should look at the debates over emerging biotechnologies: by focusing on the relationship between parents and children, and on how that relationship might be undermined by increasing the power of parents to control the biological properties of their offspring. That this conservative insight has been largely absent from these debates over gene editing is unfortunate. Conservatives should be doing more to make their voices heard on this issue.


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