Gene-Editing And Genetically Altered Babies

Dec 8th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Science has always struggled with the scientific (technological) imperative:  Just because science can do something does not mean it must do it.  That imperative is now being tested by the gene editing technique known as CRISPR.  For several years now, several scientists have warned of the day when the gene editing technique CRISPR would be used to create a genetically altered human being.  Among other things, their concern was that that CRISPR would be misused to alter everything from eye color to IQ.  For this reason many nations have banned CRISPR and any procedure that deliberately alters the genes of a human embryo.  [This includes the United States but not China.]  Nonetheless, this fear has been realized.  A Chinese researcher announced right after Thanksgiving that he had created the world’s first genetically altered babies, twin girls who were born this month in China.  The researcher, He Jiankui, declared that he had altered a gene in the embryos, before having them implanted in the mother’s womb, with the goal of making the babies resistant to infection with HIV.  [He made the announcement on the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong.]

What is the primary concern with CRISPR and gene-editing?  In an article in the New York Times, Gina Kolata, Sui-Lee Wee and Pam Belluck argue that “If human embryos can be routinely edited, many scientists, ethicists and policy makers fear a slippery slope to a future in which babies are genetically engineered for traits—like athletic or intellectual prowess—that have nothing to do with preventing devastating medical conditions.  While these possibilities might seem far in the future, a different concern is urgent and immediate: safety.  The methods used for gene editing can inadvertently alter other genes in unpredictable ways.  Dr. He said that did not happen in this case, but it is a worry that looms in the field.”

Why did Dr. He chose this family for his use of gene editing?  He announced that he had recruited several couples in which the man had HIV and then used in vitro fertilization to create human embryos that were resistant to the virus that causes AIDS.  He said he did it “by directing Crispr-Cas9 to deliberately disable a gene, known as CCR5, that is used to make a protein HIV needs to enter cells.”  What is especially unusual about Dr. He’s announcement is that he has not published the research in a journal and did not share any evidence or data that definitely proved what he says he did.  Furthermore, the hospital where he did some of this work, Shenzhen Harmonicare, denied being involved and denied that the hospital’s ethics board had granted permission for this procedure.  He is also associated with the Southern University of Science and Technology in China, which says that it suspended Dr. He in February because the school of biology believed that the project “is a serious violation of academic ethics and academic norms.”

Why is gene editing such a concern among many scientists and most ethicists?  It is so powerful that it can conceivably launch an era of what some call “designer babies.”  We are not obviously there yet as a civilization, but gene editing simply means this is no longer science fiction.  For that reason, Richard Hynes, an MIT cancer researcher, who co-led an advisory group on human gene editing for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, said that group and a similar organization in Britain had determined that if human genes were to be edited, the procedure should only be done to address “serious unmet needs in medical treatment, it had to be well monitored, it had to be well followed up, full consent has to be in place.”   Kolata, Wee and Belluck demonstrate that “it is not clear why altering genes to make people resistant to HIV is a ‘serious unmet need.’  Men with HIV do not infect embryos.  Their semen contains the virus that causes AIDS, which can infect women, but the virus can be washed off their sperm before insemination.  Or a doctor can inject a single sperm into an egg.  In either case, the woman will not be infected and neither will the babies.”

What has been the response to Dr. He’s announcement?  Leading genomic scientists from around the world called for an immediate halt to any clinical use of gene-editing in human embryos and sharply reprimanded Dr. He.  The Chinese government said it had suspended and launched a probe into the clinical project run by Dr. He.   “It’s flagrantly violated our national regulations and flagrantly broken the scientific world’s ethical bottom line,” Xu Nanping, vice minister of science and technology, told CCTV in an interview. “It’s shocking, unacceptable, and we firmly oppose it.”  The leaders of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing were similarly critical in a highly anticipated consensus statement issued on the event’s last day.  “At this summit we heard an unexpected and deeply disturbing claim that human embryos had been edited and implanted, resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of twins,” said the summit’s organizing committee, which called for independent verification of He’s claims that have so far not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms,” the organizers said in the summit’s consensus statement.  The committee, representing leading researchers from the United States, Britain, China and five other countries, did not call for an outright ban on gene editing.  Instead, it acknowledged that the field was moving toward a future where the procedures would be widely researched in clinical trials and that researchers needed a rigorous framework to set ethical standards and guidelines. But in the meantime, the panel called for a halt.  “The organizing committee concludes that the scientific understanding and technical requirements for clinical practice remain too uncertain and the risks too great to permit clinical trials of germline editing at this time,” the closing statement said.

As Christians, how should we think about this extraordinary development in China?  Because of the crisis of moral authority in western civilization, there is no absolute ethical framework to help address this issue. There is a desperate need for some guidelines, rooted in God’s revelation. Therefore, what follows is a list of guiding principles that offer some guidance, rooted in or inferred from God’s Word.  They offer a starting point for discerning Christians.

  1. Human beings are created in God’s image, the fundamental basis for human value and worth. We can then stipulate that humans are always more valuable (intrinsically so) than all other created things. There is an essential, Creation-order distinction between humans and other created things (both living and non-living), see Genesis 1 and 2. Hence, technology must always seek to preserve the worth, dignity and value of all human beings, regardless of age or stage of development.
  1. Issues and practices associated with reproductive and genetic technologies fall under the stewardship responsibility of humanity to God. In Genesis 1:26ff, God created humans, male and female, in His image and then gave them the responsibility to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (1:28).” Verse 29 extends this dominion to plants, trees and seeds. God affirms this dominion status, although affected by human sin and rebellion, to Noah in Genesis 9:1-2. Because God is sovereign and humans have dominion status, human accountability is a necessary corollary. This matter of accountability has powerful implications when it comes to reproductive and genetic technologies. These technologies give humans power never realized before in history. But because of human depravity, it is difficult to be optimistic about the ultimate use of some of these technologies. In His common grace, God has permitted the human race to develop these technologies, but we must always remember that we are accountable to Him as to how we use them. With gene editing, we simply do not know the long term effects of its widespread use. The sobering fact of human depravity looms over its use.
  1. Human life itself is of higher value than the quality of human life. With the eternal perspective that Scripture gives, the quality of life ethic is faulty but seems to drive the current use of many of these technologies. Ethicist Michael Sandel writes that “In a world without givens, a world controlled by bioengineering, we would dictate our nature as well as our practices and norms. We would gain unprecedented power to redefine the good. . . The more successfully we engineered IQ and muscle-to-fat ratio, the more central these measures would become to our idea of perfection. . . But it w[ill] never be a perfect world.? [The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, p. 5.] Because of sin, we live in an imperfect world, and, until the new heaven and new earth, our fallen world will be characterized by disease, tragedies, accidents and old age. The quality of life ethic, therefore, must never trump the infinite value of life ethic detailed in the Bible.
  1. Carl Henry, years ago in his book, Christian Personal Ethics (1957), provided an important guideline for wise decision-making when it comes to reproductive and genetic technologies: “Whatever tends to overcome what would be a deterioration in the created order and seeks to restore what God purposed in Creation is on far safer grounds than all kinds of novel and experimental enterprise.” In other words, he argued that there is clear biblical warrant for technologies that restore; there is no clear biblical warrant for manipulation toward perfection—an insightful guideline in approaching gene editing.
  1. Finally, human civilization must critically examine the scientific (technological) imperative. Simply because society can pursue a particular medical, reproductive or genetic procedure does not mandate that it must do it. Especially in the area of genetics, “can” does not mandate “ought.” The potential for power and control and its obvious abuse mandates an examination of this imperative. Perhaps with some of these procedures, such as gene editing, it would be wise to not do them at all.


See Gina Kolata, Sui-Lee Wee and Pam Belluck in the New York Times (27 November 2019); Carolyn Y. Johnson and Gerry Shih in the Washington Post (29 November 2018); and James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics, pp. 43-53.

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One Comment to “Gene-Editing And Genetically Altered Babies”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    Thank you for focusing on this topic. What will happen if there happen to be unintended consequences in any editing? What will be done with the child that does not turn out as desired?