Genetically edited twins: A storm in a test tube

Priest calls for greater ethical consideration of drive to create ‘superhumans’, Beijing 
China December 17, 2018

(Photo from Pixabay)

Claimed creation of the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls in China — has stirred debate amid profound ethical and spiritual implications.

This includes conflicting views on the desirability or otherwise of a future with so called “superhumans” bred with disease resistance and other perceived advantages.One fear is that such predestination would overwhelmingly only be available to the rich and influential. The poor, meanwhile, would continue to be subject to the whims of nature, including congenital defects and susceptibility to maladies.

At the end of November, scientist He Jiankui confirmed in an address at the Second Summit on Human Genome Editing held in Hong Kong that twins Lulu and Nana had been born with altered genes.Genetic editing is a technique that involves DNA being inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the human genome. In this case, the twins were said to have had their genes altered to, among other things, make them resistant to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, apologised for what he said was an earlier “leak” revealing his experimentation. The disclosure sparked an international furore. However, Father Joseph Tham, a professor in the school of bioethics at the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, said he was not surprised by the news as such a case of genetic editing was going to happen sooner or later.

The academic priest, who attended the human genome editing summit and listened to He’s address, told that the earlier development of so-called test-tube baby technology was the beginning of the “materialization” of the human embryo. In the fields of experimentation and research, it was natural to try to perfect embryos, Father Tham noted. “Just like the iPhone, there are always new models launched in the market, claiming that the new model is better than the old one,” he said. “This is the tendency of human beings and the inevitable development of technology. Technology always has such a tendency and it is also an ideal for scientists – unceasingly surpassing the past.” 

Ways are being sought to make people healthier and to prolong life, including through organ regeneration and disease resistance, Father Tham said. There is great potential to change the human condition through a variety of interventions, genetic modification being one of them. “What is even more irresistible is that when one day these technologies become safe and effective for everyone to use, they will be popular,” Father Tham said. However, many matters of concern will arise in the form of ethical issues, he warned. For example, there is the question of what happens to the embryo as an experimental product after it has been modified. “What are the consequences?” he queried. “Can it be successful? Is it safe? No one knows and there is no answer.” Father Tham also stressed that the Catholic Church’s position is that embryos should not be used as an “experimental product.” In his posthumous book Brief Answers to the Big Questions, British physicist Stephen Hawking, who died in March, outlined his various fears about the future of mankind. One matter of deep concern for Hawking was that wealthy people would use the genetic modification technology to improve the genes of themselves and their children, creating smarter superhumans with a longer life expectancy. 

In this regard, Father Tham said there was cause to contemplate whether or not it is a good thing to aspire to create such superhumans. Father Tham raised the specter of some individuals, although being very intelligent, physically attractive and powerful, turning out to be “a bad guy”. “How could we deal with him?” Father Tham asked. “That is the problem.” The priest added: “Humans should pursue a more perfect and better life, but is it just limited to physical and material perfection? Should we think more about our spiritual and virtuous perfection?” Father Tham noted that the Catholic Church believed becoming a saint was the most perfect human attainment. A person with physical disabilities or deficiencies could be perfect because of inner goodness and a saint from the spiritual point of view, Father Tham said, suggesting success in life can follow setbacks and failures. Father Tham said the genetic editing of the twin babies Lulu and Nana in China had been condemned by many scientists at the Hong Kong summit. 

However, they had only focused on the fact that He announced the result of his experiment too early as the technology is still very immature and the consequences unknown. The other scientists were worried that the case of the twins would hinder the research and development of genetic technologies in the future. However, the blame was being apportioned just from a “secular” perspective, rather than from an ethical stance. At present, Britain, the United States and China do not have a blanket ban on researching human genetic modification technologies using embryos. But the priest believes that the implication of the way He was criticized was that there remained scope for genetic editing to be considered safe and effective. “Technology is like a knife which can help people or hurt people,” Father Tham said. “It depends on whether it can be used ethically.” However, as science and technologies were developing at a tremendous pace, it seemed dealing with moral and ethical considerations was too slow to keep up. 

Clearly, for Catholics, there is a need to pray and study the big ethical questions that arise from genetic editing in order to avoid negative consequences.