In the Service of Human Life
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Applied Bioethics in stylized text
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In the Service of Human Life

Embryonic Gene-Editing

News of the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies made headlines worldwide. Born in a Chinese hospital, Dr. He Jiankui edited the embryo’s DNA in an attempt to make the twins resistant to HIV. Their mother is HIV-negative, but their father is HIV-positive. This put the twins at high risk for contracting HIV while in utero.

The problem with this story is how Dr. Jiankui went about his research. Dr. Jiankui, in the custody of Chinese judicial services as of this writing, made edits to the twins in their embryonic state. He sidestepped the ethical and peer research review panels, operating outside of the legal and professional limits to which he was subject. While gene-editing in adults is nearing a mature state, the gene-editing of embryos is far less understood.

Embryonic gene-editing is controversial because we know very little about how those edits will manifest themselves throughout the life of the individual. We know so little about these outcomes, that the edits may have negative knock-on effects in subsequent generations. It is also conceivable that by editing to prevent one disease, the person may be more susceptible to another, perhaps more serious one.

A person is a unique combination of generations of their ancestors. They are made up of a DNA structure that is wholly unrepeatable in humanity. This is what gives us our uniqueness. We have also come to accept that, along with that individuality, comes the risk of illnesses, chronic conditions, and other dysfunctions of the human body.

When we change something organic in the building blocks of a human, that human becomes somewhat mechanical. When medicine gene-edits embryos to remove the possibility of suffering, error, or pain, the result is a person that has more in common with a machine than with another person. It’s noble to seek to alleviate pain, but pain and suffering is part of the human experience. Zero pain and zero suffering is not possible in a social animal like humans. Emerging research is discovering that humans experience physical pain when negative emotional events occur, such as the death of a spouse.

We don't know the consequences of embryonic gene-editing, and in order to study on a sufficiently large scale, scores of people would have their dignity and personhood violated, without their consent. It’s unclear how to advance this technology without the possibility of adverse and unintended consequences. What is clear is that while considering these issues, the human embryos must be afforded the maximum levels of respect and dignity.