"Why moral concerns of advancing procedures outweigh the potential to treat diseases "
In recent years, scientists have honed a powerful technique to directly and precisely modify genes. This gene-editing technique, known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), holds the potential for treating various genetic disorders. For example, it has been used successfully to reverse disease symptoms for a rare liver defect known as Type 1 tyrosinemia. CRISPR, which enables scientists to snip out a mutated piece of DNA and replace it with the correct sequence, is proving to be remarkably versatile in the hands of biomedical researchers. Some of the potential applications of this technique are spelled out in a recent Nature Biotechnology article:
“CRISPR could make gene therapies more broadly applicable, providing remedies for simple genetic disorders like sickle cell anemia and eventually even leading to cures for more complex diseases involving multiple genes. Most conventional gene therapies crudely place new genetic material at a random location in the cell and can only add a gene. ... CRISPR and the other new tools also give scientists a precise way to delete and edit specific bits of DNA — even by changing a single base pair. This means they can rewrite the human genome at will.”
Ulterior motivesCorrecting mutations in human DNA to remedy serious medical defects would not seem to raise moral red flags, as long as the treatment comported minimal risk and was carried out with informed consent of the patient. Certain diseases, for example, can be treated by genetically modifying stem cells from a patient’s own bone marrow or blood. These modified cells can be reintroduced into the body to correct particular anomalies, such as enzyme deficiencies or other pathologies like cancer. In 2008, in a document called Dignitas Personae, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) agreed that trying to restore “the normal genetic configuration of the patient or to counter damage caused by genetic anomalies” will be morally acceptable as long as the person being treated will not “be exposed to risks to his health or physical integrity which are excessive ...”
Our ability to rewrite the human genome at will through precise DNA editing techniques, however, does raise real concerns about misusing the technology.
Researchers, for example, are already discussing going beyond therapies and treatments, and instead using CRISPR to enhance human characteristics. For example, one possible direction would be to engineer changes in the genes of human muscles so that they could be worked harder and longer, thereby enhancing the performance of athletes and soldiers.
This kind of human re-engineering would cross an important line: instead of helping human beings who are struggling against serious diseases, scientists would now begin manipulating them for ulterior motives. Dignitas Personae notes how attempting to create a new type of human being could unmask a dark and troubling ideology “in which man tries to take the place of his Creator,” resulting in an “unjust domination of man over man.” As the document puts it, “such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities, while privileging [others].”
‘Crime against dignity’Another twist in this same direction would involve using techniques like CRISPR to produce designer human embryos during in vitro fertilization. These embryos could be modified to have particular characteristics that parents selected and paid for, such as eye color, height or intelligence.
A prior CDF document called Donum Vitae describes the objections raised by this kind of proposal: “To use human embryos or fetuses as the object or instrument of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings having a right to the same respect that is due to the child already born and to every human person.”
Manhandling and exploiting human embryos in this way is widely recognized as morally out of bounds, and the community of scientific researchers would do well to step up to the plate and repudiate these proposals, branding them as ethically unacceptable and prohibiting research funds from being directed toward such studies.
Another bright ethical line that biomedical researchers will likely be tempted to cross with technologies like CRISPR involves the creation of humans who have permanent, heritable genetic modifications (changes that are passed on to children, grandchildren and beyond). Such research would launch us into that hubris-filled brave new world of manipulating the genetic traits of future generations.
To sum up, then, the remarkable new tools becoming available for genetic modification of our own genes offer tantalizing possibilities for treating serious diseases, but also raise daunting ethical concerns about the subjugation of man to his own technology. These novel technologies call us and challenge us to careful reflection and thoughtful ethical discernment in order to assure their proper and circumspect use in the future.
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
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Posted 9/3/16 Received & Edited 16/03/16 OSV