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Genetically modified human embryo research given the ethical green light

In a recently published report, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has said that genetically modifying a human embryo could be “morally permissible” in certain circumstances. The report was carried out by an interdisciplinary team, with members including experts in biology, human reproduction, genome editing, law, and ethics.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that scientists can immediately begin modifying the DNA of babies, rather, a panel of experts has determined that cautious research into the viability, safety, and moral repercussions of the practice of genetically modifying human embryos should begin. This includes social studies that will assess the implications for the genetically modified individuals, and how this practice will affect society as a whole, considering social class, discrimination, and inequality etc.

This doesn’t mean that scientists can immediately begin modifying the DNA of babies

The technology in question involves modifying the genetic code of a human embryo (the genotype) to change the physical attributes (the phenotype) of the person that said embryo will become. This is only limited by scientists’ understanding of how the genome works to bring about all aspects of humans. For example, something like Duchenne muscular dystrophy is controlled by a single gene (albeit the largest known human gene), and so modifying an embryo to ensure that this disease is not present would be theoretically rather simple, scientists would just replace the faulty copy of the gene with a working one. However, more complex traits, such as height, involve many different genes that also affect other aspects of the human body, and are therefore less well understood, and would be much more complex to modify.

It would be difficult to deny that the use of this technology to combat inherited genetic diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis would be a force for good. This would benefit not only the individual who would have been affected, allowing them to not only live a life free of the debilitating effects of such diseases, but have children of their own without worrying about potential health risks, and to the parents of such children who would undoubtedly suffer emotionally and financially from having an affected child.

The technology in question involves modifying the genetic code of a human embryo (the genotype) to change the physical attributes (the phenotype) of the person that said embryo will become

However, it would be reckless to deny that the report invokes many questions regarding social ethics. Should parents be allowed to modify their child’s eye colour, for example? How about their intelligence or athletic ability? Is this a slippery slope to so-called “designer babies”? The report attempted to quell many of these questions by saying that to be ethical, any use of this technology should be strictly in the child’s interests, and be consistent with social justice and solidarity, and not increase disadvantage, discrimination, or societal division. However, it may be considered that even if this technology is strictly used for the treatment of genetic diseases, it may cause current sufferers of those diseases to begin to feel marginalised and reduce effort into finding treatments for them.

Furthermore, the report suggested that the government should set up a new regulatory body in order to ascertain a holistic view on the permissibility of specific use cases of genetic modification. This is to ensure that as many voices as possible are heard in public discussions about the technology, ensuring to as high an extent as possible that in terms of society, the technology is used ethically.

Should parents be allowed to modify their child’s eye colour, for example? How about their intelligence or athletic ability? Is this a slippery slope to so-called “designer babies”?

The ethics behind genetically modified human embryos is challenging, interesting, and polarising. Everyone will have their own opinions on the matter, some differing in their entirety and some only in nuance. Perhaps the further research encouraged by this report will result in less division in opinion on the matter and lead us into a new age of treatment for genetic diseases.

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