Hopes and fears around new developments in genome editing have sparked a fresh round of arguments about the ethics of eugenics.
Until recently, a great deal of ethical thinking about genomics focused on what would happen if scientists ever worked out a reliable way of changing DNA sequences in the nuclei of human germ cells, making it possible to modify genetic inheritance across multiple future generations.
And then they worked it out.
“Crispr-Cas9” is a strange name for a potentially world-changing technology. The Crispr bit means “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. And Cas9 is a protein. Together they make a tool that many people have called a pair of “molecular scissors”. These are much more sophisticated and accurate than previous ways of cutting and pasting genetic material and are just the job for snipping up strings of DNA which can then be stuck back together again in new and interesting ways. If you know your way around a genomics lab, apparently it’s really quite easy – although probably best not attempted at home.
The advent of a (relatively) simple and cheap method of genetically modifying entire future generations means that some of the big questions around laws governing biomedical research, the ethics of eugenics and the risk/benefit analysis of scientific inventions need to be revisited and perhaps revised.
At the beginning of September, a consortium of UK scientific research bodies put out a joint call for a serious national and international discussion of the kinds of limits and regulations that might be needed in the very near future. Currently in the UK, the technology is legal but hemmed in by strict regulation. Only a few research projects gain ethical approval and any modified human embryo must be destroyed within 14 days.
In the USA, the situation is slightly different. Although legal in most States, human germ cell modification research is barred from receiving funds from the Federal Government. This ambivalence was highlighted by the call, earlier in 2015, for a moratorium on the use of the technique. That suggestion came from no less a figure than the inventor of Crispr-Cas9, Jennifer Doudna, who says that a time-out is needed to allow for a wide-ranging professional, political and public debate about the technology’s massive implications.
So what are the main points on either side of the argument?
Those ‘against’ see the coming of a new era of eugenics in which people with access to the technology will be able to choose and build not just “designer babies” but entire designer lineages. Blogger ‘Jenise’, commenting on the moratorium article in the New York Times put it like this: “In a few generations this technology could give rise to a “super-race” of rich people who can ensure their offspring inherit all the best human qualities, and are free of genetic deformities and debilitating diseases, while the rest are left to face the destiny of their family genes, or pernicious environmental influences. Class status will assume a biological basis. It is chilling to contemplate.”
Another fear is that an unscrupulous or evil person (think Bond villain) might use the science to produce a kind of private super-army. “Somewhere a government or billionaire is considering what might be achieved in creating a race of extremely powerful yet subservient subclass of human beings to serve whatever purpose chosen”, warns ‘Memnon’ in the NYT comment feed.
Other ethical positions in the ‘against’ camp include the long-standing objection that scientists “shouldn’t play God”. Perhaps more thoughtful and less theologically driven is the concern that the science of genetic expression is currently poorly understood and that there may well be a range of unintended consequences associated with amending heritable DNA. Crucial in this line of argument is the idea that we currently lack detailed knowledge about ‘epigenetics’ – the interactions between gene sequences, the interactions between gene sequences and the intracellular environment and the interactions between gene sequences and the general environment. That is a lot of complexity that we simply do not know enough about.
Those in favour of pushing ahead with widespread experimentation using Crispr-Cas9 draw attention to the fact that, in the non-human setting, amending heritable DNA has been a widespread activity since the dawn of purposeful plant and animal selection.
As far as accusations of human eugenics are concerned they point out that it is already quite commonplace for couples who risk producing offspring with inherited disease to opt for in-vitro embryo screening followed by selective implantation. What’s so different, they ask, about using Crispr-Cas9? Except that it will be easier, cheaper, less emotionally disruptive. And crucially, if it works, it only needs to be done once by one generation – that’s what germ line modification is all about.
Another major argument in favour is that already, even with the 14 day embryo destruction rule, gene editing and germ line modification are crucial tools in the development of new ranges of drugs and treatments for anything from diabetes through to dementia and cancer. Closing down the science now would, in itself, be hugely unethical.
Perhaps the most exotic ‘pro’ arguments are those about the very survival of the human race in an increasingly uncertain future. As we increasingly foul the planet, we will need ways of making future generations happy and comfortable to live with a polluted atmosphere, a lack of clean water, a sedentary lifestyle, highly processed foods and much hotter temperatures. What better way than sticking with current reproductive techniques, but with the added bonus of a germ-line genetic tweak of two?
And why stop at worrying about our future on this planet? Harvard Medical School professor George M. Church is also concerned about our abilities to colonise new planets : “If we go into space, we need enhancements that handle radiation and osteoporosis…or else we’re dead. So what seems like an enhancement in one generation becomes life and death in another generation.”
The development of Crispr-Cas9, it seems, is finally taking us into the kind of science fiction territory presaged by Franklin, Crick and Watson all those years ago. The ethical arguments will be long, hard, complex and sometimes bitter. And so they should be.