Last week a team of American and South Korean scientists became the first in the world to modify a human embryo to eliminate flawed DNA which pass diseases down from one generation to the next. The results of this experiment are certainly a milestone for science and may excite those whose families currently suffer from serious hereditary maladies such as epilepsy, breast cancer, or heart disease; however, for those of us who champion the cause of human life even in its most delicate, unborn state, they present a serious set of ethical qualms and new cause for alarm both in regards to the methodology used to derive prospective medical procedures, and the societal implications of such procedures being made available to consumers.

The scientists involved in the experiment used a technique known as CRISPR which targets an undesired portion of a particular genome using an RNA guide, and then shaves it off using the Cas9 enzyme. It is also used in immunotherapy to fight leukemia by modifying T-cells to attack cancer cells. The experiment is performed on fertilized eggs by injecting sperm already-containing a congenital disease into a healthy human egg wherein portions of diseased DNA (inherited from the father) are removed and replaced with healthy portions from the mother. To avoid results from prior experiments performed in the People’s Republic of China, which produced patchwork “mosaics” of healthy and diseased cell portions because not all diseased genome sections could be replaced, the new procedure injects the egg with the Cas9 enzyme alongside with the sperm. The human embryo is then allowed to develop for five days before being terminated.

Five days, then “termination.” The obvious moral issue is that in order to produce this result, the scientists first had to maim – by intentionally afflicting the embryo with a disease – and then kill someone, a fragile but genetically distinct human life, a “someone” undergoing cell division and already responsive to external stimuli. Given the nature of the experimental method used to perfect any procedure, the experiment must be repeated over and over again to whittle away procedural and technical flaws. Therefore, whether experiments of this nature could ever avoid this outcome is extremely unlikely. One is left to wonder at the staggering true cost of a “perfected procedure” – how many lives must be sacrificed in order for others to “live better”?

Even if such an experiment could someday be ethically perfected, there are many subsequent ethical issues to consider:  How could gene editing impact these individuals as they grow into children or adulthood – are there unknown side-effects?  Could the CRISPR technique potentially be weaponized?  Most importantly and immediately, what is the expected response if the gene editing was performed erroneously on the embryo, or if it leads to other, unintended mutations in the development of the embryo? Do the parents immediately abort? The damage that this research could wreck upon society is great, exponentially outweighing its potential benefits. Learning how these experiments are being performed today and seeking out meaningful steps to limit the unethical furtherance of such research must become a new priority.

Sources:
http://www.bbc.com/news/health-40802147
http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-fixes-disease-gene-in-viable-human-embryos-1.22382
http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/crispr-turbocharges-car-t-cells-boosts-cancer-immunotherapy/81253925
http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-altar-of-progress

About the Author:
Tai-Chi Kuo, JD:  Tai-Chi is an Illinois-based member of the Dorothy Day caucus of the American Solidarity Party.  He is an Assistant Vice President working in the project management office of a regional financial services company.  He holds a Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago and also an undergraduate degree in Advertising from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign – an institution where he is currently studying to obtain a Masters of Business Administration.  Tai-Chi serves as worship coordinator for English-language services at a large, historically Chinese American Evangelical church in the suburban Chicagoland area.