Culture Wars
Chinese Embryo Experiment Creates Big Blacklash

Chinese scientists recently announced that they used human embryos for an experiment in gene editing—a historical, and very controversial, first. Scientists have long accepted the idea of editing adults’ genes, but the Chinese experiment did something different by modifying the genome of embryos. The scientific community has greeted this research critically, by reiterating calls for a moratorium on experiments that could change the genome. In the first place, as the WSJ reports, the experiment didn’t even succeed; though the embryonic genome was edited, “the gene repair failed to make the desired changes and caused what the geneticists called ‘off-target’ effects.”

But the bigger issue is the unethical nature of the experiments. At the New Atlantis, Brendan Foht explains:

 What has shocked the scientific community is how this experiment crosses one of the last and oldest taboos of mainstream bioethics: it modifies the human germline. Genetic changes made to human embryos, unlike gene therapy conducted on adults, will not only affect the genetically modified child but also the genetically modified child’s descendants. Technologies like CRISPR are just what might make possible that dream and nightmare of genetically designed children — if we allow the technologies to be used to modify human embryos […]

The strong stance that the scientific community has taken against germline modification is an encouraging sign, to be sure. While some so-called ethicists, like Julian Savulescu at the University of Oxford, recklessly endorse the genetic modification of humans, the scientific community has displayed considerable prudence in its approach to this controversial issue. It would appear that the world’s two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, both turned down the opportunity to publish this radical paper, and though the editors of neither journal have yet made any public statements on the matter, it would seem that they may have declined to publish on ethical grounds.

Bioethicists, that is, are deeply concerned about such bio-engineering, as well as the ethical implications of altering the genome of a human being without its consent. Another source of the alarm is the possibility that well-heeled parents might soon be able to pay for children crafted to their specifications. And as Foht points out, the calls for moratoriums on germline modification take place against a background of widespread acceptance of other practices many deem unethical—such as discarding embryos.

What kinds of ethical restrictions should exist on genetic experimentation is likely to be one of the most heated debates of the coming decades. The technological capability advancing fast, raising all sorts of questions about the kind of society we will want to be. For now, a unified scientific community has rejected what was, in any case, an experiment that did not go as planned. But the research is likely to continue in some form or another—already, four other Chinese labs are rumored to be experimenting on embryos.

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