Christian Bioethicists Weigh in on Reports of First Gene-Edited Babies

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

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.

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.

“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.

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Source: Baptist Press