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ETSU philosophy lecturer raises ethical questions about gene editing research

Brandon Paykamian • Dec 2, 2018 at 5:32 PM

The ethical debate about editing embryos’ genes continues after the Chinese government ordered a halt to work by researchers who have claimed to create the world’s first genetically edited babies.

Scientists throughout the world, along with the Chinese government, have said they are opposed to the efforts by researcher He Jiankui, who recently claimed to have altered the DNA of twins to make them resistant to HIV/AIDs. On Thursday, Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping said government officials have ordered an investigation into He’s research after ordering He’s team to stop the project.

Ever since He announced his research, there have been some concerns about whether this type of genetic alteration is safe without any longterm studies.

Evan Butts, a lecturer in the East Tennessee State University Department of Philosophy and Humanities, said he has some ethical and moral questions about whether the desire to “edit” genetics is a slippery slope into eugenics.

“If people are going into the idea of genetic editing of embryos and say we’re going to ‘make them better,’ that's the slippery slope into eugenics,” he said. “If you know you can stop the embryo from suffering from a disease, that’s an entirely different motivation.” 

Butts said the motivations guiding the research and the potential uses of genetically altering infants is an important thing to consider and put into question when exploring the ethics of such moves toward radical medical advances. 

“Whenever you talk about genetic engineering, there are a lot of concerns about the motivations that people will come to, especially with their children,” he said. “It’s not just about whether or not these techniques can be used for good things, it’s also about why parents will want to or why societies will want to genetically engineer children.

“When ethicists, bioethicists and philosophers think about this sort of thing, we don’t just focus on the good outcomes and possible bad outcomes, often you want to take into account the motivations of people going into these actions,” Butts said. “This is what characterizes a thorough philosophical approach to this type of issue.”

One of Butts’ main concerns with the research is the lack of thorough oversight and the issue of informed consent by parents and by the genetically-altered infants in question. He raised questions about the parents’ say in the matter and whether or not truly informed consent played a factor in the radical research.

Butts also believes that, since advanced treatments for HIV already exist alongside ways to stop transmission from parents to children, it’s likely that the research was a case of radical biomedical adventurism.

Due to these concerns, Butts believes it was right to halt the research for now.

“What the doctor did seems very clearly unethical, even outside of this concern about broader genetic engineering,” he said. “It’s definitely a good idea to halt this particular project and ensure any future research in this domain first goes through extensive overview and planning.

“An infant can’t themselves consent to anything, so the effects of something done to them before they developed at all is always a concern,” Butts continued. “He did it because he could, rather than tackling a real issue for these individual children. It was an unethical thing he did and perhaps a misplaced effort, as well.”

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