Monday, 4 May 2015

Why the upset with Chinese scientists who "genetically modify human embryos"

Recently, concerns were expressed about Chinese scientists who "genetically modify human embryos". Fr Fleming, a leading bioethicist, puts these concerns into ethical context in an article he sent me today.

Fr Fleming writes:
The scientific community is in uproar over the newly reported experimental use of embryonic human beings to produce genetically modified human beings. (David Cyranoski& Sara Reardon, “Chinese scientists genetically modify human embryos: Rumours of germline modification prove true — and look set to reignite an ethical debate”, Nature, 22 April 2015,

It seems to have frightened them. Why?

Well, it seems that Chinese scientists have been trying to produce healthy embryos from embryos which have an identifiable genetic defect. They were trying to end up with an embryo with one altered gene in every cell, but with no unwanted damage to any other DNA.

In these experiments 86 embryonic human beings were injected with the enzyme complex CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing technique. These ‘defective’ embryos, labelled ‘non-viable’ because they could not result in a live birth, were obtained from fertility clinics. It is reported:
“In almost every case, either the embryo died or the gene was not altered. Even the four embryos in which the targeted gene was edited had problems. Some of the embryo cells overrode the editing, resulting in embryos that were genetic mosaics. And speckled over their DNA was a sort of collateral damage — DNA mutations caused by the editing attempt.”
At this stage the researchers did not plan to actually produce a baby (that is to bring one of these embryonic human beings to term). So what’s the problem? Why the angst?

After all, scientists in the area of reproductive technology have used all kinds of fanciful reasons to get legal permission to experiment on human embryos, embryos which they, the scientists, say are not really human beings anyway. And they were going to get embryonic stem cells from them and cure everything from Parkinson’s disease to Alzheimer’s. That has turned out to be fanciful, the use of embryonic stem cells for therapy having got precisely nowhere, while the use of adult stem cells has powered ahead.

The thing is that scientists and law makers have broken fundamental ethical boundaries. Western scientists may legally kill embryonic human beings and justify it by the utilitarian calculation that much good will come from it. And they were moved to do so by the legal approval of killing the unborn child in abortion, again on utilitarian grounds. If you can kill a 12 week old foetus, an embryo is a mere bagatelle by comparison.

So Chinese scientists think they can do the same. Why should other scientists be so upset?

The upset is not remorse for the killings of human beings. Their concern is about what might happen if these experiments in the end give rise to the bringing of these “improved” or “edited” human beings to term. What if we then discover it has all gone wrong, that every cell in the body of these human beings is in some way contaminated or distorted with catastrophic implications for the physical and/or psychological health of these persons who are now lifetime experimental subjects, and made so without their knowledge and consent?

Even worse, what if the problems associated with such procedures are not discovered for a couple of generations, and these people have spread their defective genes to others by being involved in the conception of new human life?

Reputations of scientists will be called into question with some even questioning the scientific project as a whole. And stand by for litigation for alleged failures of duty of care and negligence! That mustn’t be allowed to happen, must it! Reputation and money are of far greater importance than the killings of the weak and defenceless.

Critic and research scientist Edward Lanphier says “we need to pause this research”. He doesn’t say ban, he just wants a “pause”.

George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard, referring to in vitro fertilization, said: “Their study should give pause to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes during I.V.F.”. “This is an unsafe procedure and should not be practiced at this time, and perhaps never.”

Well, that is what Lanphiere and Daley think. But they are not really against it, are they? No, but should just be a “pause”, and it just shouldn’t happen “at this time”. The “perhaps never” Daley adds as an afterthought is hardly reassuring. Others, and especially the Chinese, may well disagree with him. And since the medical and scientific communities have successfully abandoned their previous commitment never to do harm to human beings, how can they now, with straight faces, condemn others who are equally ethically challenged.

And law makers in the UK and elsewhere were only too willing to be seduced both by the use of spurious and emotionally charged non-scientific arguments and by the promise of spectacularly successful new treatments for all kinds of serious conditions.

But, unless there is a willingness for world communities to retrace their steps, to again be committed to the idea that science and medicine are there not to harm human beings but to benefit them, then we can expect more of what our mass media so uncritically applauds as “world first”, “the latest breakthrough”, the “last taboo overcome”, and the promise of utopia at the hands of our Dr Strangeloves.

While it is time (past time) for us to wake up from our ethical somnolence, there is no evidence yet that we have the political leaders in the UK who are prepared to face up to the mess they themselves have created. Instead we continue to be governed by those who are deaf, dumb and blind where the great challenges to human life are concerned, challenges to human life that they themselves have allowed, funded, and promoted.

Scientific researchers may not, at this stage, be prepared to go where the Chinese have gone, although I seriously doubt that. Nothing much seems to hold them back. And their own ethical logic suggests that they have no sensible ethical boundaries left to prevent developments in this kind of research.

Their hubris seems unlimited. And as research scientist Edward Lanphier concedes: “The ubiquitous access to and simplicity of creating CRISPRs creates opportunities for scientists in any part of the world to do any kind of experiments they want.”

If you are allowed to experiment on human embryos there will be many groups of researchers (four already in China) that will not be able to resist the megalomaniacal desire to recreate human beings in what they imagine is in humanity’s best interests and according to their own utopian prejudices.

Got that?

Lanphier is really conceding that once scientists are allowed to experiment on human embryos there is no way that you can stop the very experiments which they now say alarm them.

When that argument was used by those who objected to legalising experiments on embryonic human beings, it was laughed out of court as “scare mongering”. Well, some scientists are scared now, but not enough to make them rethink the very basis of their own moral position.

The great Renaissance thinker and writer, Michel de Montaigne (1553-92), in his famous classic Raymond Sebond, made this perceptive observation about hubris:
“Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man], who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole?”
Dr John I Fleming
4 May 2015
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