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An Argument For and Against Germline Editing

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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1200 words

In the past few weeks, talks of genetic modification have increased in the news cycle. Questions of whether or not to edit the genes of future people constantly arise. Should we edit genes and or the germline? If we edit the germline, what types of problems would occur? Is it moral to edit the germline of future people (babes are included in this as well) when they have no say? Is it moral to edit the genes of a baby that cannot consent to such editing? I will present one argument for and against editing the germline. This is a really big debate in current contemporary discourse; the argument for editing the germline rests on wanting the best for future people (which of course include our children) while the argument against editing the germline rests on the fact that said future people cannot consent to said germline editing so we should not edit the germline.

An argument for editing the germline

Germline editing is editing the germline in such a way that said edit is heritable—the modification to the germline is then acquired by the next generation of progeny. The rationale for editing the germline could be very simple:

Parents want what’s best for their children; since parents want what’s best for their children, then parents should edit their germline to rid their children of any disease and/or make them the best person they can possibly be, as is the job of all parents; therefore parents should edit the germline so said heritable changes can pass to the next generations since parents want what’s best for their children.

One may say that a babe has no choice in being born, naturally or artificially, and so since parents are able to choose the modifications, then this does consider the babe’s rights as a (future) person/human since it is, in theory, giving the babe the best possible chance at life with little, to no, diseases (that are noticed at conception). Parents can use new, up-and-coming genetic technology to attempt to give their child a head-start in life. They can edit their own germlines, and so, each change done to their germline would pass on to future progeny.

An argument against germline editing

Ethicist Walter Glannon articulates two great arguments against germline editing in his book Genes and Future People: Philosophical Issues in Human Genetics (2002). Glannon (2002: 89-90) writes:

Among other things, however, germ-line genetic alteration may not be desireable from an evolutionary perspective. Some genetic mutations are necessary for species to adapt to changing environmental conditions, and some genetic disorders involve alleles that confer a survival advantage on certain populations.

[…]

This raises the risk of whether or not we have a duty to prevent passing on altered genes with potentially harmful consequences to people who will exist in the distant future. It may recommend avoiding germ-line genetic manipulation altogether, which is supported by two related points. First, people existing in the future may be adversely affected by the consequences of a practice to which they did not consent. Second, because of the complex way in which genes interact, it would be difficult to weigh the probable health benefits of people in the present and near duture generations against the probable health burdens to people in the distant future. Because their interest in, and right to, not being harmed have just as much moral weight as those of the people who already exist or will exist in the near future, we would be well-advised to err on the side of caution. Indded, we would be morally obligated to do so, on the grounds of nonmaleficence. This would mean prohibiting germ-line genetic manipulation, or at least postponing it until further research can provide a more favorable assessment of its safety and efficacy.

I largely agree with Glannon here; though I will take his argument a step further: since future people literally cannot consent to germline genetic modificaitons then we should not edit our germline since we would be passing on the heritable changes to our descendants who did not ask for such changes.

The argument against germline editing is very simple:

(1) People should have a choice in whether or not their genes are modified.

(2) Since people should have a choice in whether or not their genes are modified, they then should be able to say “yes” or “no” to the modifications; though they cannot consent since they are not present to consent to the germline editing they will acquire in the future since they are not alive yet.

(3) Therefore we should not modify the germline without consent from future people, meaning that we should not edit the germline since there is a strong moral imperative to not do so since the future people in question cannot consent to the editing.

This argument against germline editing is a very strong moral argument: if one cannot consent to something, then that something should not be done. Future people cannot consent to germline editing. Therefore we should not edit the germline.

Another thing to think about is that if parents can edit the germline and genes of their children (future people), then it can be said that they would be more like “commodities”, like a handbag or whatnot, since they can make choices of what type of handbag they have, they would then make choices on what type of kid to have.

Hildt (2016) writes:

It is questionable whether there would be broader justifiable medical uses for germline interventions, especially in view of the availability of genetic testing and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

Gene editing can give us “designer babies” (though my argument presented above also is an argument against “designer babies” since they are future people, too); it can also put an end to many diseases that plague our society. However, there are many things we need to think about—both ethically/morally and empirically—before we even begin to think about editing our germline cells.

Conclusion

So, on the basis of (1) future people not being able to consent to said germline modifications and (2) us not knowing the future consequences of said germline editing, then we should not edit the germline. We, in fact, have a moral imperative to not do so since they cannot consent. The argument “for” germline editing, in my opinion, do not override the argument “against” germline editing. I am aware that most people would say “Who cares?” in regard to the arguments for or against germline modification, because people would “Just do it anyway.” Though, if there are laws against the editing of the germline, then germline editing cannot (should not) go through. Just because we *can* do something does not mean that we *should* do it.

We should not modify the germline because future people cannot consent to the changes. The moral argument provided here against germline editing is sound; the argument is a very strong moral one and since it is sound we should accept the argument’s conclusion that: “we should not modify the germline without consent from future people, meaning that we should not edit the germline since there is a strong moral imperative to not do so since the future people in question cannot consent to the editing.

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17 Comments

  1. Samu says:

    Largely a good post but I find myself in disagreement with your first premise. I think if you take your first premise to its extreme, you could argue against vaccinating young children.

    1) People should have a choice in whether or not they get vaccinated

    2) Young children are incapable of making an informed decision on vaccination

    3) Therefore young children should not be vaccinated

    If you think vaccinating children without their consent is good — like I do — I believe you have to accept that editing your child’s genes is also good.

    Let me know what you think about my counter-argument.

    Best regards,

    Samu

    Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Children can refuse vaccinations iff they fully understand the implications of taking and not taking said vaccinations.

      The same is not the case for future people; nevermind the fact that we are not aware of longterm effects of germline editing and what would occur if we do so.

      Germline editing would be ethical if, and only if, we can ask future people if they would want germline editing.
      We can’t ask future people if they would want germline editing.
      Therefore, germline editing is not ethical; we should not edit the germline because future people cannot consent to germline edits.

      Like

  2. Lampukistan says:

    If germline editing would mean altering DNA in sperm cells or oocytes, aren’t the parents entitled to alter their own reproductive systems? Future humans don’t consent to having a particular set of parents either. They certainly cannot approve of the partner choice of their mothers or fathers, which in essence translates to their genetic predispositions. Why should they have a say in other alterations to their genes?

    Future humans cannot consent to be germline-edited, but why should existing humans be required to consent to “subpar” offspring? Be it a severely disabled child or just a not maximally intelligent one. Once some parents germline-edit, other parents have to follow to keep up anyway no matter what’s “moral”.

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    • RaceRealist says:

      aren’t the parents entitled to alter their own reproductive systems?

      The same point about consent still holds. It precludes consent to future generations; the argument presented here holds for them, too.

      For example, think about germline editing for human lifespan. It precludes consent, and so it may never be considered an ethical practice.

      Since germline genome editing precludes obtaining the consent of the individual in question, and that such a predictable harm will be commonly encountered, it is questionable that human germline editing to extend lifespan can ever be considered an ethical practice.

      Designing Methuselah: an ethical argument against germline genetic modification to prolong human longevity.

      Like

    • King meLo says:

      I think RR has missed the point.

      The commenter stated: aren’t the parents entitled to alter their own reproductive systems? Future humans don’t consent to having a particular set of parents either.

      Meaning:

      P1) According to RR, any action enacted upon an individual must be consensual to count as moral.(e.g, abortion, germline editing)

      P2) Future people cannot consent to being born

      C1) It is immoral to be born

      This also applies to parents not being able to consent to their childs genetic predispositions.

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    • RaceRealist says:

      Humans have a need to propagate. The parents aren’t ‘entitled’ to alter their own reproductive system; their ‘own reproductive system’ is how future people are born. Germline modification for X precludes consent. Thus it isn’t moral to do so.

      Like

    • King meLo says:

      “Humans have a need to propagate”

      Says who?

      “how future people are born”

      Future people cannot consent to being born. It is immoral to force life upon them. No one should have babies.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Antinatalist arguments like Benetar’s have been dispatched; future people can choose to end their lives if they so please if they choose not to exist. But the arguments for non-abortion can be tailored against antinatalism, too.

      Like

    • King meLo says:

      1) Answer the question

      2) Future people can choose to end their lives, but that’s after the fact that they were forced into existence. Which is immoral according to your aforementioned logic. The immoral action has already occurred, being able to choose later doesn’t change it’s “badness”.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      (1) Marquis’ argument against abortion can be reformulated for antinatalist arguments.

      (2) If we didn’t have children based on the fact of non-consent of life then my argument is not relevant. But we do have children, thus my argument is relevant.

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    • RaceRealist says:

      People can’t consent to being born; we can’t ask future people if they’d like to be born. If they’d so choose to end their life if they don’t want to live, then they should have that choice.

      Right now, we are faced with the problem of genetic modification. My argument proposed a solution: we shouldn’t do so because future people cannot consent. The argument is deductively; it’s sound.

      So we should not genetically modify babies or future people; if people want to do non-heritable modifications to themselves, it’s well within their right to do so.

      Like

    • King meLo says:

      1) That’s not answering my question.

      2) Naturalistic fallacy

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      (1) Yes it is

      (2) I didn’t say anything about whether it was “good” or not. I only said if we chose not to have children then my argument isn’t valid but we choose to do so so it is.

      Like

    • King meLo says:

      1) No I asked what your justification was for the statement: “humans need to propogate”

      2) It is. You base morality on the validity of arguments. Your argument’s relevancy rests upon observable phenomena. It is fallacious.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      I asked what your justification for the statement l: “humans need to propagate”

      If we don’t propagate then our species ends. Therefore, since we need to propagate then we should propagate.

      It is fallacious.

      No it isn’t. My argument is relevant since we have children. If we didn’t choose to have children then it wouldn’t be relevant. We choose to have children thus it is relevant.

      No fallacy. Also: Anscombe.

      Like

    • King meLo says:

      “If we don’t propagate then our species ends.”

      Do you think all sentient life forms would hate to see us go?

      ” If we didn’t choose to have children then it wouldn’t be relevant. We choose to have children thus it is relevant.”

      You are basing an ought off of an is. it is always relevant to the moral discussion, because it addresses consent as a proxy. Even if it’s not a fallacy it still doesn’t address the criticism.

      Like

  3. john doe says:

    Could just skip the jazz and point out that it will just lead to a hedonist dystopia, i.e. people editing their kids to look like dogs because their parents are a bunch of faggot furries; or people making living, mindless sex dolls who have no functional brain.

    Like

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