Archive for September, 2017


Two Australian ethicists on gene editing of human embryos

Wednesday, 27 September, 2017

An article was published today in The Conversation titled “UK gene editing breakthrough could land an Aussie in jail for 15 years: here’s why our laws need to catch up“. It was authored by two Australian ethicists, Christopher Gyngell and Julian Savulescu. who argue that gene editing for research purposes should be legal. The key argument is as follows

Many are worried about the long-term implications of such gene editing research, and claim it sets us on a path to “designer” babies. But in the UK where the Nikian study was performed, the laws make a distinction between the research and reproductive applications of gene editing.

Under the UK’s regulatory regime all reproductive applications of gene editing are banned. Such a distinction is also made in Australian laws between the use of cloning for reproductive purposes (which is prohibited) and cloning for research (which is permitted). Making a distinction between reproductive applications and research enables clearly beneficial research to proceed while preventing controversial applications.

I think this makes perfect sense. Many of the arguments used to justify a ban on gene editing of human embryos do not apply when those embryos are never implanted in a womb (and those that do apply to research on genetically-engineered embryos already apply to current research on non-edited embryos). So this distinction between reproduction and research is a sensible one to advocate.

There is, however, a telling implication in one section:

But such research is, at the very least, premature. Most experts agree gene editing science is far too immature for us to be thinking about reproductive applications in humans. But the technique can today be fruitfully used to study development, as the Niakan study shows.

The implication is that one day reproductive applications will be possible. And both authors have been on record advocating for gene editing of human embryos for reproductive purposes:

Germline Gene Editing (GGE) has enormous potential both as a research tool and a therapeutic intervention. While other types of gene editing are relatively uncontroversial, GGE has been strongly resisted. In this article, we analyse the ethical arguments for and against pursuing GGE by allowing and funding its development. We argue there is a strong case for pursuing GGE for the prevention of disease. We then examine objections that have been raised against pursuing GGE and argue that these fail. We conclude that the moral case in favour of pursuing GGE is stronger than the case against. This suggests that pursuing GGE is morally permissible and indeed morally desirable.

I happen to totally agree with these authors on both research and reproductive use of genetic engineering, but I know that people who oppose the reproductive use of genetic engineering will argue against this using a slippery slope argument. And given the two ethicists arguing for the meaningfulness of the distinction between reproductive and research uses of genetic engineering advocate for both sides of that distinction, it will be hard to refute that argument.