There are many reasons to be concerned about the moral/ethical status of genetic engineering of human embryos.
So do we really need to take it further?
The following analysis is a perfect example for anyone who wonders what all the fuss is about, in regard to genetic engineering of unborn human beings. It is a complex issue that involves both great potential benefits but deep moral issues and practical dangers that override those benefits. That’s not always easy for the public to work out on their own.
The analysis concerns the suggestion by some scientists that we could and should use genetic engineering to manufacture “savior siblings” whose very existence is intended to help their brother or sister avoid life with a genetically inherited affliction (disease, abnormality, disorder, or disability).
Imagine having a child with a rare but severe disease that has a genetic origin. Then imagine that you could give birth to another child who has the genetic characteristics needed to produce the components (stem cells) necessary for relieving the first child of their disease.
It sounds very tempting.
Here is how it will be done. Using in vitro fertilization (IVF) to generate multiple human embryos in a laboratory, scientists would choose one embryo that is most likely to benefit the already born child with an inherited disease. All the rest of the embryos would be discarded or destroyed in research.
This is how “savior siblings” have already been created.
It is not easy to succeed, though, without multiple cycles of IVF (around $10,000 per cycle on average). In one example of a HLA complex, “1 in 4 embryos made by Jessica and Keith would be a ‘match’ for their daughter. Three out of four of their embryos would be free of Fanconi anemia. So together, only 3 of 16 embryos they created would make an ideal donor. Technically, the odds were even lower because some embryos would not have a healthy number of chromosomes.”
Here’s where genetic engineering comes in.
The genetic engineering procedure could enhance the outcome of the IVF process by further altering the DNA of the embryo chosen to be implanted in the mother’s uterus. Assuming that scientists have figured out the exact genetic edits that will produce the desired result (a huge assumption), the new child will be most likely to be of benefit to the first child afflicted with an inherited disease.
What are the moral issues, then?
- As has been debated extensively, any “savior sibling” could experience significant doubts about her or his self-worth if that sibling is aware their existence was primarily for the purpose of helping their sibling. With genetic engineering, the child is not only created for a purpose that is not their own, they are altered further for that purpose.
- The practice of creating “savior siblings” disturbs every person’s sense that human beings have a moral dignity as ends in themselves. This practice will add to the already extensive devaluation of human life that we observe in our society, thereby legitimating other anti-human practices of all types.
- IVF involves developing and then killing multiple human embryos. In this case, IVF is used to pick and choose the most “desirable” child according to human caprice.
- Genetic engineering of human embryos, especially in regard to combating rare and complex diseases, is monumentally difficult. Unintended side effects are nearly impossible to avoid.
- When performed on embryos, the genetic changes will be inherited by future generations, potentially with a magnified effect among many people.
- The research applied to developing genetic engineering therapies involves killing thousands of embryonic human beings. The most vulnerable human beings are further devalued as instruments for other persons.
In all, the sacrifice for the sake of the first, afflicted child is the destruction of thousands of embryos in research, then destruction of several in IVF, then development of a sibling who does not have an identity formed for his or her own sake. Then there is the demeaning of human life and the consequent despair in our society. Then there is the great risk of potentially disastrous, genetic effects on future generations.
Considering Virtuous Fortitude
The virtue of fortitude is perhaps the most difficult one for us to accept. Why suffer through physical and emotional pain? Especially when our emotional pain comes from watching our own child suffer?
First of all, no parent simply “watches” their child suffer. They extend charity by comforting, and perhaps treating medically, the child. They reassure the child of her or his inherent dignity and great worth as a child of God. This is a holy life and purpose.
Second of all, a child of God – and this includes the parents – has a dignity that goes far beyond the relief of suffering. The saints and the martyrs welcomed suffering, praised God for it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. They experienced bliss in a way few of us will ever know. It was prayer that helped them through their trials and led them to discern the right path.
If we have hope in our true dignity and purpose of eternal life with God, we can make wise and virtuous decisions in the face of technological temptations.
I have hope that we can all reach that wisdom if we only contemplate our actions prudently and prayerfully.
– Chris Reilly
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