Ethicists Square Off over Editing Genes in Human Embryos

Julie Steenhuysen, Reuters, December 1, 2015

Debate over the use of powerful new gene editing tools in human eggs, sperm and embryos grew heated on Tuesday as scientists and ethicists gathered at an international summit to discuss the technology, which has the power to change the DNA of unborn children.

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Hille Haker, chair of Catholic Moral Theology at Loyola University Chicago, argued on Tuesday in favor of a two-year international ban on research that involves changing human reproductive cells, also known as germline cells. Such changes would be passed on to offspring.

She argued that such practices violated the freedom of unborn children, who would not have an opportunity to consent to changes in their genetic code.

But John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester in Britain, argued strongly in favor of the technology.

“We all have an inescapable moral duty: To continue with scientific investigation to the point at which we can make a rational choice. We are not yet at that point. It seems to me, consideration of a moratorium is the wrong course. Research is necessary,” Harris said.

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Advocates have said the technology can speed the day that scientists can prevent hereditary diseases. Opponents worry about unknown effects on future generations and the temptation for future parents to pay for genetic enhancements such as greater intelligence or athletic ability.

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Some scientists believe it is already too late to ban any use of the technology in human reproductive cells because the technology is easily accessible and in widespread use in many labs.

“It’s just not feasible,” Debra Mathews of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics told a news briefing on Monday.

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The three-day Washington meeting was convened by the National Academies of Medicine and Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of the United Kingdom.

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