Objections to Genetic Engineering of Human Embryos

Unpredictable and reckless.

Kills unborn human beings.

Not compassionate medicine or therapy.

Causes despair.

Imposes unwarranted parental control.

Pursues a fantasy of perfection.

Loss of respect for human dignity.

Vast increase in government powers.

Objections to Genetic Engineering of Human Embryos: Unpredictable and Reckless

It is important to note that the content of this website focuses on genetic engineering of human embryos, not of born children or adults. The kind of genetic engineering performed on embryos, which is soon after their creation, is likely to have more fundamental effects on the developing person, and there is more of a chance that genetic mutations, damage to DNA, or environmental factors can cause unpredicted effects during the person’s lifetime. Genetic engineering of embryos is also known as “germline” editing (or “genome” editing) because the changes made in DNA can be inherited by future generations.

Genetic engineering always involves risk. This is not the risk of a medical procedure, which has an immediate effect, but of the future development and health of the person (and of future generations).

In considering the risks of genetic engineering, we need to consider several questions (aside from the moral, psychological, and relationship issues that are even more important):

Can we predict the effects of genetic engineering on the person and on future generations well enough to justify trying to “fix” genetic abnormalities or enhance certain features and capabilities?

Do the current technologies for genetic engineering actually make the changes in DNA that are desired, with extremely high accuracy?

Since there will always be unpredictability and risk, just how much risk is acceptable? Who decides? Who protects the interests of the individual or future generations affected?

Can we trust the researchers, scientists, and clinics to conduct the genetic engineering so that they avoid the risks that society has deemed unacceptable? Who will regulate this? Can it be effectively regulated? Is it worth the risk?

Here are some of the reasons why predicting the unintended effects of genetic engineering and germline editing is enormously complex, and why certainty is impossible:

It is rare to find a single gene that always has a specific effect on an organism. Most characteristics or abilities that we can identify in organisms are “caused” by a number of genes.

The effect of genes often depends on how they interact. Even a basic human characteristic like height is influenced by tens of thousands of genetic variations.

Genes influence multiple characteristics.

It is never possible to know if a gene or combination of genes might have effects that were previously unknown.

The “expression” (active influence) of a gene can be turned on or off, or changed, by the nature of the entire DNA sequence.

It is only recently that scientists realized what 99% of genes do. Previously, scientists thought that these “noncoding” or “junk DNA”, which means they do not instruct the body in the making of proteins, had no purpose. Now they realize that this kind of DNA is actually involved in turning the protein-coding genes “on” or “off”. The research on these genes is just getting underway.

The influence of a single gene on the organism can change depending on the way it interacts with other genes, proteins, and bacteria.

Genes can mutate, which is when random “mistakes”, damage, or interaction with other substances interfere with the process of duplicating DNA in cells. The new DNA is not an exact copy of the original DNA. In order to know whether a gene will have the expected influence, scientists need to know for sure whether the gene has or has not mutated.

The possibilities for gene mutations are unlimited and unpredictable, and scientists do not know what effect most mutations will have on the body.

An individual’s genetic information in DNA can actually change during lifetime through their environment and experiences. These changes may be inherited by children. The rapidly changing field of science that studies these lifetime changes in DNA is called epigenetics.

While most DNA is found in the nucleus of a cell, there is also some DNA in other structures in the cells called mitochondria. Some inherited changes in mitochondrial DNA can cause major problems for the health of a person in their organs and tissues like the heart, brain, kidneys, and muscles, with negative effects on hearing, sight, intellectual function, diabetes, and other disorders.

The changes in mitochondrial DNA can have multiple effects.

Mutation in mitochondrial DNA may or may not be inherited by future generations.

Genes do not entirely determine a person’s nature. Environmental factors, damage, disease, and freely chosen acts of the organism can interfere with genes’ actual control over what the organism looks like or how it acts. None of this is predictable.

Germline editing continues to affect future generations, and the effects will tend to be irreversible. The inheritance over just a few generations involves millions of potential variations, mutations, and scenarios that occur as edited genes are inherited. This number of possibilities makes it highly likely that unintended effects will eventually appear in future human beings.

Biological evolution in the species, whatever the mechanisms for the changes, has caused human beings to become extremely unique and capable animals. Genetic engineering interferes with the natural process of evolution, of which we still have very little understanding as well as extreme differences of opinion and theories.

Objections to Genetic Engineering of Human Embryos: Kills Unborn Human Beings

LINKS TO RELATED TOPICS (click on any topic to go to that page)
Christian teaching on the dignity of unborn human beings.
Christian teaching on killing and murder.
Jesus’ commandment to love.

Genetic engineering kills unborn human beings, as does germline editing, because research involves the use of human embryos as subjects of experiments. At this time, all embryos are destroyed in the publicly reported and institutionally or legally regulated experiments.

Due to extreme enthusiasm for the possibilities of genetic engineering therapies, the deformation and killing of human embryos in research will explode over the next decades. The developed tools for these experiments are increasingly accurate in editing the correct genes, and they are inexpensive, allowing many new researchers and institutions to join others in research.

Currently, many countries’ laws and nearly all ethical guidelines by scientists’ associations and government agencies insist that genetically engineered embryos be destroyed without implantation in a woman’s uterus. Uncertainty about the consequences of tampering with human genes is driving a temporary preference for caution. Nearly all of these entities, however, express enthusiasm for research on embryos and later application of the resulting therapies.

The research involved in developing just one useful genetic engineering therapy is enormous and demands many experiments. Determining how to generate the desired effects from genetic engineering is, in most cases, extremely complex. Predicting and learning to avoid other significant effects of editing certain genes is a painstaking process that is probably impossible in achieving certainty. These factors create an incentive for researchers to experiment on and extensively kills unborn human beings.

The genetic engineering therapies intended to produce born children whose genetic characteristics have been altered will generally make use of IVF (in vitro fertilization). IVF almost always results in the destruction, freezing, or experimentation on multiple embryos.

The practice of IVF involves combining a father’s sperm with a woman’s eggs to conceive multiple human embryos in a laboratory. Based on test results, the preferred embryo will be selected. In genetic engineering procedures, the preferred embryo’s genes will be edited to remove unwanted characteristics or enhance others. It will then be implanted in a woman’s uterus so it grows and is eventually born.

It is theoretically possible to conceive just one embryo and then genetically edit it, but this process would forego the opportunity in IVF to compare several embryos and pick the preferred one. Since IVF with multiple embryos is currently used widely, IVF with just one embryo is unlikely.

Over 7 million IVF cycles have been initiated since 1978. If three embryos on average are destroyed or frozen in these IVF cycles, there may be over 21 million casualties of IVF. This will increase significantly when genetic engineering of embryos becomes common.

LINKS TO RELATED TOPICS (click on any topic to go to that page)
Christian teaching on the dignity of unborn human beings.
Christian teaching on killing and murder.
Jesus’ commandment to love.

Objections to Genetic Engineering of Human Embryos: Not Compassionate Medicine or Therapy

Researchers engaged in genetic engineering of human embryos, and the bioethics scholars who provide justification, suggest that genetic engineering and medicine have the same goal of compassionate, therapeutic intervention to reduce the suffering of a person. The parents who choose the intervention and the scientist or doctor who performs the therapy will intend to eliminate inherited characteristics – described as “diseases” or “abnormalities” – that may harm the welfare of the child.

We have always seen medical healing as an unqualified good, so what is different about genetic engineering?

The problem is that the embryo is not actually perceived as a patient, a dignified person who deserves compassionate care. The embryo is instead perceived as raw material for a future person who, at the time of genetic engineering, only exists in the imagination of the participants.

The procedure is therefore not medicine, but manufacture. Although this seems at first like an irrelevant philosophical point, the manufacture of human persons at the beginning of life brings our society into a very destructive situation for all persons.

Scientific experiments for genetic engineering abuse and then kill many human embryos. The included procedure of IVF (in vitro fertilization) conceives multiple embryos, only one of which avoids destruction or freezing. The adults who choose and implement the genetic engineering procedure will not sincerely care about healing the chosen embryo itself.

There are many consequences of this distortion of compassion and misleading justification of medical practice:

Click on any of the below topics to read more:
Burdens new persons with potentially damaging, unintended effects.
Denies the new person an opportunity to define their own life’s meaning.
Damages the identity and relationships of the new person.
Allows parents to undermine love in favor of selfish or strategic purposes.
Enables some people to impose their ideas of perfection on other persons and future generations.
Destroys respect for the dignity of each human being.
Increases discrimination and contempt for persons who are different or live with a disability.
Enables vast government powers over our society.

Pope John Paul II wrote: “A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual without doing harm to his integrity or worsening his conditions of life. Such an intervention would indeed fall within the logic of the Christian moral tradition.”

We should note some important relations between genetic engineering and medicine in John Paul II’s declaration:

  • The genetic engineering must be “strictly therapeutic” for “healing” some “maladies”.
  • The purpose is the “well-being of the individual” with “integrity” and conditions of life”.

This pope speaks of the “logic of Christian moral tradition,” but not the full practical ramifications of genetic engineering in medicine and practice. For example, he does not mention the use of IVF (in vitro fertilization) in the actual implementation of genetic engineering therapies. John Paul II and the Catholic Church have consistently condemned IVF as the killing of unborn persons and a distortion of sacred human procreation.

John Paul II and the Catholic Church have also repeatedly defined the welfare of a human person as driven by the person’s unified nature in body and soul. “Maladies,” even in the scientific reason of medicine, are harms or obstacles to the fulfillment of a person in their union with God. A merely physical or practical deficiency may not meet such criteria.

Jesus’ miracles of healing gave priority to glorifying the mutual love between God and person. Genetic engineering of the embryo, however, cannot be a loving act. The person who is the intended object of the procedure is merely a potential being imagined by a person today. The “love” parents feel for their future child is merely a feeling of appreciation and ownership of an idea, or the anticipation of its realization. 

In Jesus’ teachings, charity seems to be an action in the world that has a worldly impact on the welfare of a recipient that is present to receive it. Jesus’ use of the Aramaic equivalent of “neighbor” also implied proximity.

With his healing miracles, Christ modeled love of neighbor as an expression of God’s love and power. Both lover and loved are transformed in their relationship with God, just as humanity has been redeemed and offered eternal joy in Christ’s loving sacrifice, death, and resurrection. The “love” of a future, born child through genetic engineering does not have the transformative possibilities that exist for a parent and child who are both present in the moment.

It is not at all clear that the actual practice, perceived as a union of genetic engineering and medicine, can ever meet the requirements of Christ’s commandments and the Christian ideal of medical intervention as an act of charity.

In order to perform genetic engineering of human embryos in holiness, as John Paul II described, we would first of all need to abandon experimental research on human embryos and the selection of preferred embryos through IVF.

The objectives of genetic engineering would need to be guided by thorough consideration of the human person’s purpose in faithful concentration on their worship and reunion with God.

It is quite likely that removal of inherited diseases, abnormalities, or afflictions may not enhance the person’s opportunities for holy living and the grace-filled experience of suffering that participates in Christ’s own suffering and triumph.

Parents will need to love the embryo itself as a developing child of God and appropriately consider – in the present – the risk-benefit ratio, complications from substituting their consent for the child’s, potential influence of discriminatory attitudes, balancing parental control with trust in God’s providence, the gift of love without conditions, etc.

In short, how can parents, scientists, and researchers claim faith in Christ’s new covenant for all persons if they actively pursue genetic engineering of human embryos? Jesus was clear that we “cannot serve two masters.” Sometimes we just have to say “NO”.