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It sounds like the plot of a bad science-fiction movie: a renegade scientist violates global moral standards to engineer a new breed of humans. But that’s what has happened, if a Chinese scientist is to be believed.
He Jiankui, a researcher with a PhD from Rice University and postdoctoral training at Stanford, announced this week that he has created the world’s first genetically edited babies. The twin girls were born this month.
However, Dr. He did not publish his research in any journal or share any evidence or data to prove his claims. He spoke today at the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, where he announced another “potential pregnancy” involved in his study. He said he felt “proud” of his work in the face of nearly universal condemnation.
“I think that’s completely insane”
Dr. He states that the father of the twins has HIV. As a result, Dr. He used a genetic editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas-9 to disable the embryos’ CCR5 gene to make them resistant to HIV infection.
However, there are other ways to produce embryos from HIV-infected men without altering their genes. An HIV expert said that about half of HIV strains don’t need the gene Dr. He edited to infect patients, meaning the immunity he tried to confer is not complete. A gene-editing expert warned that people without normal CCR5 genes face higher risks of getting certain other viruses such as West Nile and of dying from the flu.
Many scientists are appalled by this announcement. “I think that’s completely insane,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University.
“Modifying human embryos at this stage in our understanding of biology is clearly unethical,” said Christopher Anderson, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley. “We do not yet understand the full biological consequences of these actions even in small animals.”
A group of 122 Chinese scientists called Dr. He’s actions “crazy” and described his claims as “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.” The hospital where Dr. He claims he received permission to do the work denies being involved and has asked police to investigate what it suspects are “fraudulent ethical review materials.” Dr. He was suspended by his university last February; the school believes that his project “seriously violates academic ethics and academic norms.”
In reaction to Dr. He’s claim, more than one hundred scientists have signed a petition calling for stricter regulations of gene-editing experiments.
Three reasons to be concerned
As Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health, I have worked for years in the area of genetics and ethics. I share the grave concerns raised by scientists around the world, for three reasons.
First, the method Dr. He reportedly used can inadvertently alter other genes in unpredictable ways. We cannot know what future medical issues he may have caused the twins whose genes he edited.
Second, the alterations he reportedly made would be heritable, meaning that these girls would pass them down to their offspring. If they have children, Dr. He’s genetic engineering would become part of the larger human race.
Third, this is a step toward a slippery slope in which babies are genetically engineered for traits such as intellectual capacities or athletic ability unrelated to medical conditions.
“Playing God” with future children
The work Dr. He claims to have performed is illegal in the US and many other countries. As a result, I am not concerned that you might seek to edit the genes of your future children. But this subject points to medical issues that are much more relevant to us.
While Americans cannot “play god” with future children through genetic editing, we can abort children with medical conditions. For instance, studies indicate that 61 to 93 percent of unborn babies discovered to have Down syndrome are aborted. This despite the fact that nearly 99 percent of people with Down syndrome say they are happy with their lives and 97 percent like who they are.
We can also use in vitro fertilization (IVF) to screen for certain disorders and even to select the gender of our children. This process typically produces embryos that are not selected and are then frozen or discarded. The day may come when IVF can screen for aptitudes as well as diseases.
However, Scripture teaches that God creates and values life at conception (cf. Psalm 139; Jeremiah 1:5). To abort a child with Down syndrome is to end a life sacred to God. To use IVF to screen for gender and health conditions is to manipulate life eugenically.
Both violate the biblical sanctity of life.
“God don’t make no junk”
Today’s discussion may not be relevant to your stage in life. But here’s a fact we all need to remember: We are created by God on purpose for a purpose. Every one of us.
Our secular culture says we are random products of evolutionary chance. Our Father says we are beloved by our Creator.
Louise Anderson was a young teenager when she was raped by a family acquaintance. Her child, Ethel Waters, became the first African-American to star on her own television show. She was famous for proclaiming, “I am somebody ’cause God don’t make no junk.”
Frederick Buechner: “Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all.”
Do you believe?