Just about everyone acknowledges that we are talking about experimenting with human life in its earliest stages. Even the BBC, in a fine explanation of a rather complicated process of genetic engineering, recognizes the continuum from fertilized egg to recognizable baby: “Every person has gone through a remarkable transformation from a single fertilized egg into a fully fledged human being made of trillions of precisely organized cells.”
And yet Great Britain is seriously considering giving the green light to experiments that would alter early stage embryos but effectively mandate their killing before they have a chance to develop into a “fully fledged human being.”
Bioethicists and pro-life advocates fear that the promise of science is too enticing to allow ethical concerns to stand in the way.
The British Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) considered an application Thursday by U.S.-trained researcher Kathy Niakan for permission to genetically modify human embryos. The BBC says that if Niakan wins approval, the first such embryos could be created by the summer.
Niakan believes she can find answers about how and why some women are infertile or repeatedly miscarry. “She says that understanding what is supposed to happen and what can go wrong could improve IVF,” said the BBC. Because many of the genes which become active in the week after fertilization are unique to humans, the only way to do this is to edit human embryos, she contends; they cannot be studied in animal experiments.
Her intention is to use one of the most exciting recent scientific breakthroughs — CRISPR gene editing — to turn off genes at the single-cell stage and see what happens …
The knowledge gained from such studies could help pick which embryos had the best chance of resulting in a successful pregnancy in IVF.
Such experiments are legal in the U.K. as long as the modified embryos are not implanted into people.
Catholic bioethicists are warning of serious implications.
“It is clear that these proposals for genetically modifying human embryos represent a further step towards the creation of [genetically modified] babies,” said David Albert Jones, director of the Oxford-based Anscombe Bioethics Centre, in a statement provided to Aleteia. “This move is only the latest step after attempts to clone human embryos, to create human-animal hybrid embryos and to create three-parent embryos. Each step has been accompanied by exaggerated promises to cure or prevent diseases, but the real result is simply more unethical experimentation on human beings at the earliest stage of their development. New techniques using ‘gene editing’ offer the hope of ethical and effective therapy of children or adults who were born with conditions that currently have no cure. Safe and effective somatic gene therapy should be the focus of our research, not more experimentation on human embryos which will be effective only in paving the way toward GM babies.”
Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute, told Aleteia that the proposed scope of Niakan’s research is ostensibly “limited” to the genetic modification of human embryos, with the justification that after such “genetic editing” and analysis the embryos will not subsequently be implanted into human wombs.
“This explanation in itself ought to horrify any normal person,” Harnwell said. “Sadly, the unrestrained hunger for scientific ‘knowledge’ has long been known to lead to a Mengelean disfiguring of the moral sense. How can it ever be licit to create a human person (because that is what a human embryo is, from the moment of conception onwards), for the purpose of scientific research, with the excuse that the human subject after experimentation will be killed when no longer of any scientific value?”
He added that the research is aimed at altering the DNA of human embryos so that they cannot develop. “It’s the PhD equivalent of a child pulling the legs off a daddy-longlegs ‘to see what happens’ — only with human beings,” he said.
Harnwell, who is honorary secretary of the Working Group on Human Dignity in the European Parliament, had a final warning: “The power to genetically modify human beings will eventually leave the hands of those who have developed it — regardless of the motivations of its original protagonists.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.