Tampering with our DNA II:

Some ethical concerns

In May 2013, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Angelina Jolie bravely revealed that she had had a mastectomy, a revelation that sparked considerable discussion. Jolie took this radical and controversial preventative step after learning that she possessed a DNA gene variant, BRCA1, which had played a role in the death of her mother from cancer, and gave Jolie an estimated 87 percent risk of developing the same cancer.

Jolie’s children who possess this gene variant will face the same difficult decision. What if we could have changed the gene variant for Jolie’s germline cells so that her children would not be faced with this horrible choice?

In September I discussed a new genetic technique that could be used to make specific modifications to our DNA: the CRISPR/Cas9 system. Changing the DNA of a cell can alter the way it functions and how it impacts the individual. The technique can be used to change the DNA in specific cells, such that only these cells are affected. But it can also modify germline cells: the eggs, sperm and embryo cells that form the next generation. In this case, the modification affects all the cells in the new individual and all of that individual’s children. The ease and specificity of this DNA-modification technique raise many issues that Christians need to consider.

Two ethical concerns have been raised. Safety of the technique is clearly one major concern. At this point, whether it is safe is an open question. Safety is a technical issue with many ramifications that I will leave to the experts. However, I can say that testing the technique’s safety requires research on human embryos, a morally questionable research exercise for those who believe that life begins at conception.

The second concern is this: if research shows that the technique is safe (a huge and complex “if”), should we permit the modification of our genetic heritage? And if we permit it for individuals with a well-characterised genetic problem, what about modifications that might be considered “improvements,” such as increases in intelligence, removing predisposition for obesity or even vanity-related changes to eye colour or height?

If I decide to have eye surgery, I am accountable to God for this choice, as I am for all my choices. I could say the same for any genetic changes I pursue for specific cells in my body. If, however, I have my germline cells changed, these modifications are not primarily for me but also for my descendants, who have no choice in my decision. Should I have this power? Is my responsibility to God for my own cells the same as that for changes to the genetic material of my descendants? Should I have the sole responsibility? If we as a society are willing to permit changes to an individual’s germline cells, should every change be regulated by some sort of society-approved process, and perhaps limited to only specific disease-related changes?

Spectrum of opinion

For situations in which there are clear genetic problems (Huntington’s disease comes to mind), I suspect that some Christians would, and others would not, agree with use of the germline-modification technique. Such variance of opinion is evident within Christian circles for many current medical procedures. For example, many Christians support the use of in vitro fertilization techniques for couples unable to conceive children naturally; some would restrict how it is used; and others (about 12 percent of American Christians, according to a 2013 Pew survey) argue that in vitro fertilization is morally wrong. Keep in mind that using the CRISPR/Cas9 technique would require in vitro (out of the body) techniques, as the embryo would be very difficult to modify in the body.

If the possibility of making specific modifications to our germline cell’s DNA is safe, many Christians could see it as preventative medicine, as one of many tools given to us by God to correct a problem in our broken creation.

For other “beneficial” genetic modifications, ethical concerns are stickier. Logistical issues will also prove more difficult, partially because the genetic link for such concerns is often not clear and also because the genes involved likely have multiple effects.

These and related moral questions need to be explored both by our Christian community and society at large. We need to put the various issues involved on the table, even if we as a society or Christian community do not all come to the same position. Fortunately, in the case of human germline modifications, we have some time, because the research community needs to settle the safety issue first.  


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