First gene-edited babies 'a bridge too far'

HONG KONG (BP) -- Evangelical bioethicists have joined many of their secular peers in condemning research that reportedly led to the birth this month of the world's first genetically edited babies. In addition to echoing secular scientists' concern about so-called "designer babies," the evangelicals objected to destruction of embryos which occurred in the gene-editing process.

A team of scientists in China reportedly has helped achieve the first live birth of genetically edited human babies.
Screen capture from the Associated Press
The reported birth of genetically edited twins in China has not been confirmed, according to media reports, and the research has not been published in an academic journal. Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who led the project, is scheduled to discuss his work in Hong Kong at an international conference on gene editing that begins today (Nov. 27).

Scientists who reviewed materials He provided to the Associated Press said they could not confirm the gene editing worked or rule out that harm was done to the twins.

"Here is another instance where the cautionary principle should give us pause," Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell told Baptist Press. "We are not tinkering with plants and animals, as considerable as that might be, but with human beings. Not only should we proceed with extraordinary caution, but we should not move ahead without the assurance that we could reverse any augmentation we make. Worse than a lethal genetic mutation would be a lethal genetic mutation we engineer in ourselves, even if our motives are good.

"Furthermore, we must protect against the trivial editing of genes for traits like physical appearance, athletic ability or musical aptitude," Mitchell, Graves Professor or Moral Philosophy at Union University, said via email. "Although it's difficult to distinguish between genetic therapy and genetic enhancement, it is still obligatory if we're to move forward ethically."

He, a scientist at China's Southern University of Science and Technology, announced Nov. 25 that a Chinese woman had given birth earlier in the month to twin girls named Lulu and Nana. The twins were conceived via in vitro fertilization (IVF), and their DNA was altered using a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to protect them from contracting HIV, a virus their father has and from which the couple wishes to spare their children, He said in a video statement.

In all, He has edited the genes of embryos for seven couples, according to AP, but only one pregnancy has been reported.

Chinese researcher He Jiankui said "families need" technology that allows them to edit the genes of their unborn children.
Screen capture from YouTube
"Gene surgery is and should remain a technology for healing," He said in his video statement. "Enhancing IQ or selecting hair or eye color is not what a loving parent does. That should be banned. I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I'm willing to take the criticism for them."

He told AP he practiced editing the DNA of mice, monkey and human embryos for several years before he attempted to use the technology on a human baby that was permitted to live until birth.

For the allegedly successful birth of twins, 22 embryos were created via IVF using the couple's eggs and sperm, 16 were edited and 11 were used in six implant attempts before pregnancy was achieved, AP reported.

While AP did not specify what happened with the unused embryos, bioethicist Joy Riley, executive director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture, told BP they presumably were destroyed or frozen, both morally problematic outcomes.

Mitchell said "the unnecessary and wanton destruction of human embryos is a bridge too far, even if the effort is to heal others. We would not tolerate for a moment the killing of a dozen individuals to harvest their organs for transplantation. Why would we allow the destruction of living members of the human race in an attempt to treat others?"

Riley, a physician, told BP that He's research is "morally problematic" and seems to be "a product of not seeing a human as more than his or her genes."

"We are created in the image of God, and that's far, far more than just our genetic makeup," Riley said. "When we start picking and choosing which genes we want to continue having, we are taking part in an experiment that is not ours."

According to AP, even if He's gene edit was successful, the gene he removed in attempting to prevent HIV could increase Lulu and Nana's risk of West Nile virus and dying from the flu.

AP quoted a Pennsylvania scientist as stating He's research is "unconscionable" while a Seattle scientist told NPR that it has caused humanity to enter "the room with the word 'designer baby' on the door." The Chinese university where He works launched an investigation and said his work "seriously violated ethics and standards," AP reported.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Deem, a physics and bioengineering professor who assisted He, is under investigation for the venture by Rice University in Houston, where he teaches.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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