Is gene editing ethical? It depends

March 8, 2019 by Rebecca Beyer, New York University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

One of Matthew Liao's most popular papers proposes that humans could genetically engineer themselves to collectively reduce our species' carbon footprint.

The piece, "Human Engineering and Climate Change," offers ideas such as stimulating an aversion to red meat (thereby reducing greenhouse gases from livestock farming); making people physically smaller (and thus likely to consume less food); lowering through cognitive enhancement (based on the idea that birth rates are negatively correlated with access to education for women); and enhancing our altruistic and empathetic responses in the hopes that, if people are more aware of the suffering climate change causes, they will be more likely to take positive steps.

But an essential caveat to the paper is that Liao, a moral philosopher and director of the NYU College of Global Public Health's Center for Bioethics, does not endorse any of these hypotheticals; the ideas, he says, are meant to provoke new conversations on an urgent topic.

And while he is open to genetic engineering in theory, he was rather horrified to see the recent news that twin girls had been born in China after a researcher genetically modified their embryos to resist HIV infection.

"My first reaction was, 'This is really bad,'" recalls Liao, Arthur Zitrin Professor of Bioethics.

First, Liao says, the scientist violated various ethical protocols—including basic principles such as transparency in research and international standards developed at the 2015 International Summit on Human Gene Editing. Second, he used a gene-editing procedure—known as CRISPR-cas9—that has not been proven safe. And, third, the intervention was not medically necessary. Because of advances in treatment, people living with HIV are able to live full and productive lives, and the sperm of HIV-infected men can be "washed" to remove the HIV virus (a technique that was used with the girls' father).

Still, under the right circumstances, Liao, who served for two years on the Hinxton Group, which facilitates collaboration on stem cell research, believes genetic engineering can be used in an ethical manner. And, in a paper published last year, he puts forth a -based approach to assessing which circumstances are right.

The paper, "Designing humans: A human rights approach," was published in Bioethics in 2018 and builds on Liao's previous writings, including The Right to Be Loved, a 2015 book in which he makes the case that children, as human beings, have the right to certain "fundamental conditions" necessary to pursue a good life (love is one such condition, according to Liao; so are food, water, and air).

In "Designing humans," Liao applies the same approach to gene editing and argues that part of the fundamental conditions necessary to have a good life are so-called "fundamental capacities," which might include but are not limited to: the capacity to act, to move, to reproduce, to think, to be motivated, to have emotions, to interact with others and the environment, and to be moral.

"The basic idea is that if we think about what human beings need in order to pursue a good life, maybe from there we can generate some principles that can guide us in reproductive genetic engineering," he says.

Liao introduces those principles with four "claims" on the of :

  • Claim 1: It is not permissible to deliberately create an offspring that will not have all the fundamental capacities
  • Claim 2: If such an offspring has already been created, it is permissible to bring that offspring to term
  • Claim 3: It Is Not permissible to eliminate some fundamental capacity from an existing offspring
  • Claim 4: If it is possible to correct some lack of fundamental capacity—without undue burdens on parents or society—it may be impermissible not to do so

Not surprisingly, Liao's claims have generated much debate and controversy, especially the notion of a "fundamental capacity" and its underlying premise—that embryos are humans who have rights, which is a premise that some—though not Liao—have used as the basis for criminal prosecution of pregnant women seeking an abortion. (Liao says he supports abortion rights and cites "A Defense of Abortion," a 1971 article by Judith Jarvis Thomson, for the idea that one being's rights do not override another's right to bodily integrity).

Ultimately, Liao observes that there are some who uniformly oppose gene editing of any kind, and who worry about the unintended consequences that may result.

"They're right to be concerned," he says. But in a world where such technology exists, he asks, "do we want a society where we say, 'Nobody can have it'?"

Explore further: CRISPR gene editing will find applications in plastic and reconstructive surgery

More information: Human Engineering and Climate Change. www.smatthewliao.com/wp-conten … andClimateChange.pdf

Related Stories

'CRISPR babies': What does this mean for science and Canada?

January 28, 2019

In the wake of the announcement in China last November of the first 'CRISPR babies', Prof. Bartha Knoppers and researcher Erika Kleiderman from McGill's Centre of Genomics and Policy (CGP) have published a commentary article ...

What we risk as humans if we allow gene-edited babies

February 19, 2019

A second woman is said to be pregnant with a gene-edited baby in China, according to reports this year. It follows revelations last November that gene-edited twins had been born, which caused much debate.

China drafts rules on biotech after gene-editing scandal

February 27, 2019

China has unveiled draft regulations on gene editing and other potentially risky biomedical technologies after a Chinese scientist's claim of helping to create gene-edited babies roiled the global science community.

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ForFreeMinds
not rated yet Mar 10, 2019
So many want to control others. One bioethics guy wants control over researchers in the field. One researcher in the field, wants to control what future generations are like. As far as I'm concerned, if they don't harm others, they can do what they want. If they bring babies into the world, they should be responsible for them until they are adults and are responsible for themselves.

These people have control issues.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.