Chinese scientist He Jiankui claims to have altered the DNA of twin baby girls. According to the BBC, He announced his experiment at the Human Genome Editing Summit at the University of Hong Kong where he said the girls whose genes he altered “were born normal and healthy.” There is no external verification of He’s claims, but his alleged experimentation raises serious ethical concerns about the treatment of human Life in light of gene-editing technology.
Reports indicate that He used the technology known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) to alter the girls’ genes to prevent them from contracting HIV in the future. The experiment was carried out using eight couples in which the father was HIV-positive and the mother HIV-negative. He claims the couples participated voluntarily, and he funded the research himself. So far, the twins, known as Lulu and Nana, are the only babies to be born, although He suggested there was “another potential pregnancy” of a gene-edited baby in the early stages. He was a professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen at the time of the research but says his former employer did not know about the experiments.
Government authorities reacted strongly with China’s National Health Commission stating that He’s work “seriously violates China’s laws, regulations, and ethical standards” and launching an investigation. China’s science ministry claims to have “demanded that the relevant organisation suspend the scientific activities of relevant personnel,” and there are reports that He is now being detained.
The international reaction to the news has been cautionary. The Canadian outlet Global News reports that Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a gene editing expert at the University of Pennsylvania, called the work “unconscionable,” and used the description: “an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.”
Another scientist, Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California said of the experiment, “This is far too premature. We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”
The major cause for concern in this type of experimentation is that the unintended consequences of altering human genetic material are not known. Currently, researchers are working with people who have been born with a genetic condition to understand how CRISPR can be ethically used to treat their condition. In embryonic gene-editing, however, children born with altered genes will carry those genes for the rest of their lives and those genes will be passed to any children they may have. Some ethicists defend the experiments on human embryos because the research is aimed at preventing disease.
What many people do not address in this discussion is the total cost in human lives of experimentation on human embryos. There is rightly much concern about the risks to Lulu and Nana, and any other children who might be born following He’s research. But there have already been many, many babies killed at the embryonic stage to advance gene-editing research. For He’s experiments, there were 22 embryos total, 16 of which were edited. Researchers attempted to implant 11 of those embryos, and Lulu and Nana were the only viable babies to result. Science unequivocally demonstrates that human Life begins at conception. Although the embryo is at the earliest stages of human development, an embryo is nothing other than a unique, human Life.
Other research has an even more staggering death toll for preborn human beings. Much is being made of the experiments in China and the Chinese government appears to be cracking down on He’s work, but the reality is that much of what He did is happening in other parts of the world. Gene-editing on human embryos cannot take place using public funding in the United States, but privately-funded labs are carrying out these experiments. There is no international backlash, because the human embryos in the U.S. project were created for the sole purpose of experimentation and killed after concluding the research.
There are still many questions about the long-term effects of altering human genes. Although preliminary research has been aimed at correcting genetic disorders that can cause life-limiting conditions, many ethicists have raised concern about the eugenic capabilities of this technology. As many people around the world express outrage at He’s reckless use of gene-editing technology on the twins Lulu and Nana continues, we should ask ourselves why we allow scientists in the United States to create human embryos who are sacrificed in scientific experimentation. Both He’s research and the gene-editing research carried out by U.S. scientists raise serious ethical concerns, and we should not be deluded into thinking that what He has allegedly done goes beyond what is already happening in our own backyard.