April 14, 2024

Enhancement, disease, and compulsory gene editing

Could we have an obligation to gene-edit embryos?

Media outlets were in a frenzy this week after the Nuffield Council on Bioethics released a new report stating that gene editing of embryos for desirable traits was “not in itself unacceptable”.

Despite the interest that the report has generated, the idea of enhancement is not a novel one. Several bioethicists have argued that we have a moral imperative to select for the best traits when implanting embryos produced in vitro. The foremost proponent of this view, Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu, has argued that the biomedical principle of beneficence should apply to our reproductive decisions and that we need to exercise “procreative beneficence” when using assisted reproductive technologies to conceive.

In an article on the blog Practical Ethics this week, Savulescu considered a related topic, namely, whether we have a duty to select for healthy children where we have the opportunity to gene edit human embryos. If parents were to produce only one embryo from IVF, and that one embryo were to be affected by a serious genetic disorder, then they may have the obligation to gene-edit the embryo. To fail to do so would be to unjustly inflict a life of suffering on the future child, Savulescu suggests. “At the very least, children should have the chance to grow up unhindered by curable major diseases”, he writes.

Last year, an essay published in The Atlantic explored the idea of compulsory gene editing for serious diseases. Readers responded with concerns that state-mandated gene editing could lead us toward a criminalisation of traditional procreation for parents with bad genes. “As soon as we go down that path, we inevitably get to the concept of who should be allowed to live and reproduce”, one reader wrote.

Enhancement, disease, and compulsory gene editing
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
embryo research
embryo screening
gene editing
procreative beneficence