Gene Editing and the Brave New World

A scientific development from China marks one more step

In his prescient dystopic novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley foretells a time when children are mass produced in a laboratory using what he calls the Bokanovsky Process.  This process ensures the stability of Huxley’s World State because it genetically conditions the children into each of five social castes.  While some of the specific details of Huxley’s imaginative world are different, we are creating our own Brave New World.  A development from China marks one more step on this journey.

A Chinese scientist announced this week that he and his colleagues have successfully edited the DNA of a pair of twins.  The twins were created using IVF, and a gene editing tool modified the DNA, specifically on the loci related to HIV infection.  The goal was to bestow a trait that would make the twins able to resist a future HIV infection.  This obviously marks a huge step forward scientifically, but unfortunately it represents a moral plummet.

IVF represents an affront to the dignity of human persons by turning them into commodities.  A child has a right to be conceived as an act of love and not in a lab dish.  What makes this particular case even more disturbing is that it shines a light on the dark side of IVF.   There is nothing wrong per se in using human subjects to test treatment modalities, but creating human subjects specifically for that purpose is morally reprehensible. In all, 22 embryos were created, 16 of whom were edited and 11 of whom were used in implant attempts.  Even the twins that were fortunate enough to survive the process are little more than lab rats in the eyes of their creators.  These poor children will live in the shadow of the tiny petri dish in which they were conceived.  There is no way to know whether the editing worked (would they have to expose them to HIV to find out?) and by altering that specific gene the researchers may have increased their risks of dying from the flu (which is much more common than HIV).

The announcement brought with it much ethical debate, although none of it over the use of IVF.  The Catholic Church is the lone sane voice condemning its use no matter how good the intentions of parents, clinicians, and scientists.  But even if they develop a means by which the gene editing could be done in utero on a child naturally conceived, it would still be morally problematic.

To see why this is the case, it is necessary to make the distinction between gene editing that is done for therapeutic reasons and that which is done for enhancement.  Enhancement, according to the President’s Council on Bioethics, is “the directed use of biotechnical power (in this case through genetic engineering) to alter, by direct intervention, not disease processes but the ‘normal’ workings of the human body and psyche, to augment or improve their native capacities and performances.”   The gene editing that was performed in this particular case would most certainly qualify as enhancement in that they are trying not to heal these twins from some disease but to enhance their capacity to avoid an acquired disease.

Although many people were surprised at how quickly the scientists were able to carry out a “successful” experiment, the Church has already anticipated that this day would come.  In the 2008 CDF document Dignitatis Personae, the Holy Office warns of the consequences of continuing down this line.  The technical difficulties are certainly non-trivial as even this example shows.  The functions of even a single gene or the interaction of specific genes is not completely understood.  Nor could we even begin to grasp the possible harm to progeny, harm that may not be able to be undone.  But even if the technical problems could be overcome, the Church still warns against its use.

First, it represents an attempt to eclipse God as the Creator.  As opposed to therapeutic modalities which attempt to mitigate inherent weaknesses, these modalities are aimed at producing super-men.  As the CDF puts it, “these proposals exhibit a certain dissatisfaction or even rejection of the value of the human being as a finite creature and person.”

Furthermore, this type of medical intervention can very easily become a soft form of eugenics in which an “arbitrary and questionable criteria” is used to decide who should be enhanced and what attributes constitute an enhancement.  That the scientists began their work with a deadly disease, one that is overwhelmingly transmitted sexually, is rather telling in that regard.  Either way, this would violate the principle of justice in “which the fundamental truth of the equality of all human beings” would be eclipsed by a two-class system of enhanced and un-enhanced persons.

Finally, Dignitatis Personae renders a negative judgment on these interventions because they imply “an unjust domination of man over man” which, ironically enough, was what Huxley was trying to warn his readers against.  Unfortunately we are failing to learn the lesson.

Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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