Twin Baby Girls Herald a New Threat to Personhood

(This post was originally published at the Personhood Alliance blog. Click here to see their blog.)

Time has run out for casual debates over the morality of human genetic editing.

A new advance in technology called CRISPR enables scientists to effectively attempt modifications of unborn individuals’ given nature by editing their genes. This development has prompted bioethics scholars to argue over the desirability and morality of genetic therapies that transform a person’s identity and relationships. Many fear the lasting consequences when genetically modified persons give birth later in life, leaving a manufactured and highly unpredictable genetic legacy for future generations.

Researchers in human genetic editing will also abuse and then destroy many thousands of precious human embryos and gametes in their experiments.

Headlines this month have given extreme urgency to limiting the adventures of genetic researchers. In a secret experiment on the DNA of human embryos, a Chinese researcher named He Jiankui may have enhanced the ability of twin girls to learn and form memories.

In spite of the possible benefits to the girls, scientists are outraged that the brain enhancements were likely an accident caused by a gambling researcher who didn’t understand the full consequences of his tampering with genes.

He Jiankui already shocked the world in November by declaring that the twin baby girls had been born after he secretly edited their genes to reduce their vulnerability to HIV. This was a reckless foray into germline engineering, by which the future of humanity is altered unpredictably when descendants of a genetically edited born person inherit the man-made revision. (For more background on this experiment, click here to view the blog post summarizing news reports.) 

Secular bioethicists have outlined several ethical violations in He Jiankui’s experiments, including a suspiciously deceptive attempt to get the parents’ consent and risky pursuit of HIV immunity in persons who showed no compelling need for the therapy.

Despite the caution of many scientists and bioethicists over blindly engaging in germline engineering, they are also salivating over the future opportunities to deliberately alter the future of humanity. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the U.S. and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in London recently expressed enthusiasm for the possibility of germline engineering.

This is a 21st century resurgence of eugenics.

Beginning in the early 20th century, eugenics advocates expressed their hatred of perceived imperfections in the human species, including supposedly inherited imperfections such as physical and intellectual disabilities, low intelligence, alcoholism, “shiftless” criminal behavior, promiscuity, and epilepsy.

The eugenicists’ efforts led to forcibly sterilizing more than 60,000 Americans and committing tens of thousands to brutal mental institutions. German Nazis, inspired by the success of American eugenics laws and a supportive Supreme Court ruling,sterilized and killed hundreds of thousands. That was the first step toward killing millions of Jews as well as “gypsies”, homosexuals, and disabled persons in the notorious Holocaust.

Today, an influential movement among bioethics scholars called “liberal eugenics” is endorsing human genetic editing, and sometimes germline engineering.1 Tampering with persons’ DNA may enable medical intervention to reduce lifetime suffering from genetic “diseases”, but other purposes include elimination of inherited disabilities or “abnormalities”.

Other goals of genetic editing will likely include parents’ attempted direction of their children’s lives by enhancing competitive abilities like intelligence and strength. Parents may impose preferences for attractive physical features and gender.

Liberal eugenics supporters have varying opinions on appropriate goals of genetic editing, but they share the fantasy that giving parents control over the selection of therapies avoids the moral depravity of 20th century eugenics.  (For more about liberal eugenics, click here to view the blog post on champions of genetic engineering.)

Most parents are heavily influenced by our society’s poor understanding of human disability and abnormality. Advocates for persons with disabilities have long pointed out that there is no warrant for assuming that such persons will experience miserable or unfulfilling lives.2 Many medical professionals are attracted to the idea of control over supposedly unwanted conditions in the human species and spread false or restricted information to parents (see my article on medical professional’s pursuit of eugenics against persons with Down Syndrome in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly).3

Parents’ blind acceptance of widespread discrimination against categories of human beings, plus the aggressive influence of some scientists and medical professionals toward complete elimination of unwanted human characteristics in the species, repeats the sin of eugenics.

We will not be free of coercion. Prominent liberal eugenics advocates are calling for government enforcement of perceived obligations to genetically enhance unborn children (consider our compulsory vaccination and education laws) or public funding of universal access to genetic therapies.4 

Pro-lifers know that parents in our anti-life culture are unlikely to recognize the dignified personhood of a human being. They resist awareness that a person’s unique and unrepeatable structure of DNA is present at conception and guides his or her biological development throughout an uninterrupted existence.

The given, special identity of a human being is a scientific fact as much as a moral one.

What does it mean for the nature and dignity of human personhood when individuals and future generations are manufactured through genetic editing? 

What does it mean when genetic editing is motivated by personal preferences, discriminatory attitudes, competitive goals, or perfectionism? What kind of personal identity does a genetically edited person live with?

Does genetic editing give priority to our appreciation of God’s magnificent creation? Does it appropriately respect human individuals’ destiny of eternal life in the presence of God and spiritual growth in overcoming life’s challenges and suffering? (Click here to see the blog post on suffering and genetic engineering.)

We must celebrate the personhood of human beings by defending the lives of the unborn. In defending lives, we also need to defend the human nature through which those lives are expressed.  

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#1. Nicholas Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). John Harris, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, “The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25 (2008), 162–176.

Jakob Elster, “Procreative Beneficence—Cui Bono?”, Bioethics, 25:9 (2011), 482–488.

Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Jeff McMahan, “Cognitive Disability and Cognitive Enhancement,” Metaphilosophy, 40:3-4 (2009), 582-605.

#2. David Wasserman, Jerome Bickenbach, and Robert Wachbroit (eds), Quality of Life and Human Difference: Genetic Testing, Health Care, and Disability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

#3. Christopher M. Reilly, “Medical Professionals as Agents of Eugenics: Abortion Counseling for Down Syndrome”, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 18:2 (Summer 2018): 237–246

#4. Agar (2004).

Jonathan Glover, Choosing Children: Genes, Disability and Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Ronald Green, Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).     

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).