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An Argument For and Against Germline Editing

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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