Monday, February 29, 2016

Editing the Human Genome, Bioethics, and Human Life

It is election time, and that, of course, brings a lot of debate, media articles, and (to be straightforward) distraction from other important issues going on in the world. Now, I am not saying politics is not important, but I am saying that sometimes we can get so caught up in candidates, debates, and primaries that we miss other events going on in our world that have equally profound and far-reaching ramifications for humanity (if not surpassing importance).

Such an event has been largely missed by the popular media, and I would argue that is has the potential to affect the human race in a way that far out-weighs any single election in the United States. It is that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in the UK has given the Francis Crick Institute the green light to use a gene editing technique called CRISPR to conduct experiments that modify the genome of human embryos.

Yes, you read that correctly: the Francis Crick Institute is going to begin modifying the genome of human embryos with the expressed goal of "understanding the process by which embryos develop... that will help identify causes of miscarriage and infertility." Proponents of the research say that it could help scientists to understand why there is a such a high rate miscarriages, how to eliminate certain diseases, and how to treat infertility more effectively. So, you might ask, "Why is that an issue? Who could be against that?" Well, when we are talking about tampering with the human genome itself, such an endeavor has far-reaching implications that provide quite good reasons to be against it.

I am, of course, not the first person to point this out. In fact, there has been a widespread outcry against these efforts by scientists across the world, calling for a worldwide moratorium on the engineering of the human genome. In an open letter by the Center for Genetics and Society, dozens of scientists across the globe call for such research to be stopped before it does irreparable damage to the human race:
Some suggest that germline modification be allowed for therapeutic purposes but not for “enhancement.”  But the distinction between these applications is subjective and would be difficult or impossible to implement as policy. Permitting germline intervention for any intended purpose would open the door to an era of high-tech consumer eugenics in which affluent parents seek to choose socially preferred qualities for their children. At a time when economic inequality is surging worldwide, heritable genetic modification could inscribe new forms of inequality and discrimination onto the human genome.  
For these reasons, several dozen countries, including most of those with highly developed biotechnology sectors, have explicitly banned human germline modification. The Council of Europe’s binding 1997 Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine also prohibits it. Numerous opinion surveys show that the great majority of Americans and others worldwide believe that heritable genetic modification should be prohibited. 
While we are encouraged by efforts on the part of scientific bodies to move the process of deliberation about acceptable uses of gene editing forward, we are concerned that much of the focus has been on technical issues of safety (implying that if it were safe it would be acceptable), rather than on broader ethical and social implications. We strongly believe that the National Academies’ initiative and international meeting should be considered a very early step of a broadly inclusive program of public discussion. Any recommendations emerging from the meeting or the initiative should make this clear. 
In sum, there is no justification for, and many arguments against, human germline modification for reproductive purposes. We call for a prohibition on such germline modification and a robust and broadly inclusive discussion on the socially responsible uses of this and other emerging genetic technologies. (Emphasis added...)
Check out the open letter yourself to look at the signatures and who is arguing that this is far too dangerous for the human race to attempt. It is not just me or other Christians (and we will get into my reasons in a moment) but scientists from many religious worldviews across the globe. Here we have a group of scientists who understand that just because we have the technology and ability to do something does not mean we should do it. We must think about the implications of our scientific research and weigh that against what good (if any) it might accomplish. In an imperfect world like ours, there are times when we must not pursue some scientific research because whatever good it might accomplish cannot be justified and is far outweighed by the loss of human life, the destruction of human dignity, the unknown affects on the human race, and the implications for human society.

As I alluded above, many Christians have also discussed the ethics and dangers of such an endeavor. In this article, Church and Culture discusses some of the ethical implications of such research. In this one, Anjeanette "AJ" Roberts of Reasons to Believe discusses the implications the image of God has on such research as well as the unknown effects on humanity that such tampering could have. Both of them are worth reading along with the open letter mentioned above, but I would like to add another ethical implication that I have yet to hear discussed: the ethical implications of the process of this scientific research itself.

In a nutshell, this process of research will "deactivate genes in leftover embryos from IVF clinics to see if it hinders development." Basically, using CRISPR, the scientists will deactivate genes, allow the embryo to develop, and then see what happens--how the deactivation of that gene helps or hinders the overall development of the human embyro. (Currently, the growth process of the embryo will take place in a lab because it is not yet legal to insert a genetically modified embryo in a human host. Not yet, but that is the next step.) They must use this process because at our current level of technology, it is possible to isolate certain genes that affect or contribute to certain diseases, defects, or developmental stages, but it is generally not known how those genes function in the overall development of a human or affect the overall development of our genome (i.e. genetic makeup). Genes are not so isolated that one gene only has one function. How particular genes contribute to the overall gene expression of a being is largely unpredictable. So, just because a research group might know what genes affect certain developmental outcomes, they do not necessarily know how those genes affect the development of the entire genome of the individual. That means this research must proceed by making targeted changes to the genome of an embryo and then seeing whether or not the embryo develops properly with the desired outcome.

Now, think about that process as a whole: they will deactivate genes, allow the human embryo to develop (i.e. grow), and see what happens. What we are talking about here is taking a human life (a human person from conception, as I argue here), modifying its genome, and then seeing if it dies or not, develops healthily or not, develops unforeseen side effects or not, etc. It is akin to taking a baby, cutting off its leg, and then saying, "Now, let's what happens as it grows." This research goes even beyond current embryonic stem cell research (which is also a deplorable destruction of human life) because it doesn't just take cells from an embryo killing it in the process; it modifies the embryo and allows it to live on just to see how the modification affects its life. This is slavery at its worst, the likes of which our world, unfortunately, has seen in the past. Perhaps a few historical examples will help put some perspective on this research.

During WWII, the Nazi's conducted experiments on Jews at many of their concentration camps, but the majority were performed at Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck. If you have not read about these experiments, they are not for the faint of heart. Nazi doctors performed all sorts of horrific experiments on those who were considered "untermensch" ("sub-human") to see what would happen and/or to see if they could develop medical treatments that would be beneficial to German soldiers. And, after WWII, at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, these doctors were tried and convicted of war crimes against humanity. What they did was absolutely deplorable and deserved to be tried as crimes against humanity, but it is not ethically different from what HFEA has just granted the Francis Crick Institute permission to do: experiment on humans to see what will happen and/or try to development medical treatments that will be beneficial for other humans. Just because these humans are less developed physically they the rest of us, just because they do not have a voice to cry out for help, just because they do not have the ability to try to flee the scientists does not mean they are any less human than you or me (cf. the SLED test for more detail on this).

Perhaps one more example from America history will help. Have you ever heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment? American physicians studied about 600 black males in Alabama who had syphilis, and they told the men that they were getting "free medical care." What these doctors were really doing was refusing to treat their syphilis so that the doctors could study the progression of untreated syphilis in humans. They let these men suffer and die just to see what would happen--to see how syphilis would progress when untreated. This also was a gross and deplorable misuse of scientific research that cost the lives of hundreds of men, but, again, it is not ethically different from what HFEA has just granted the Francis Crick Institute permission to do.

If the Francis Crick Institute is allowed to continue its research or if others follow suit, then these "left over" human embryos from IVF will become a slave class in our world, kept alive simply for experimentation not unlike what the Nazis did in WWII or what happened in Tuskegee, AL. Yes, the researchers are trying to do good with their experiments, but that does not justify the process. The end does not justify the means--developing treatments for humans by taking human life or, indeed, altering human life and allowing it to develop to see what happens is unacceptable. The end of this research may have profound implications on the human race in the future that we cannot predict, as the above articles and letters show, but even the process of this research itself should be condemned by us.

I hope and pray the outcry of scientists across the globe will bring this research to an end soon, and perhaps this blog post will help in that process. May God have mercy on us for how we treat His images.

By His Grace,

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