Business Insider reports that scientists in Oregon have successfully edited the DNA of viable human embryos efficiently and apparently with few mistakes. The embryos in question were embryos with severe genetic defects that had no chance of developing into older human beings. And because these edits affect embryos at the genetic level, it will affect the genes that are produced in their sperm and ova, meaning that whatever changes are done to the embryo will also be done to any children that embryo eventually produces. This has led to fears that it may affect the course of human evolution. And of course, it has also spurred on fears that this will lead to “designer babies,” parents picking and choosing traits that they find desirable and eliminating traits that they don’t. Stanford University law professor and bioethicist Hank Greely, however, has tweeted that there’s a difference between embryos you implant and embryos that you edit which are “not to be transferred for possible transplantation.” Editing embryos you don’t intend to implant is not a big deal.
And showing us why calling someone a “bioethicist” does not mean they really are a reliable authority on ethics, legal scholar and “bioethicist” R. Alta Charo does not consider this to be unethical.
If you are a regular listener to our podcast, you heard my interview with Elijah Thompson of the Fetal Position podcast. We had a discussion about the ethics of genetic enhancement. You can listen to that if you’re interested on some of the discussion around genetic enhancement, itself. But this is tantamount to human experimentation. We rightly condemn the likes of Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed dangerous and painful experiments on Jews during the Holocaust, and we rightly condemn the United States Public Health Service for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments on black people. This is no different. We are dealing here with human experimentation, except that doctors are allowed to get away with it, just as Mengele and the Public Health Service were, because embryos and fetuses today are not considered legal persons. R. Alta Charo is wrong when he says that this is not unethical. In fact, this might even be worse than Mengele or the Public Health Service because at least they didn’t create Jews or black people for the express purpose of experimenting on them.
If we’re talking about genetic therapy, in which we’re only trying to treat diseases, then genetic enhancement is not ethically problematic. If you’re talking about enhancing someone beyond the natural qualities of humanity, then there may be ethical concerns. But experimenting on human beings, even one you’ve dehumanized to make it easier to sleep at night, is always seriously wrong.