Human Gene Editing and Eugenics

by Christopher White, CBC Director of Research and Education on March 2, 2016

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A recent essay by Brendan Foht in the Washington Post reveals the backwards logic of scientists who advocate for human gene editing and those who also support the idea that embryos that have been genetically modified must be destroyed.

The advent of CRISPR technology allows for the possibility of us forever altering the human genome (for a helpful video tutorial, click here). But as Foht notes in his piece, there is an emerging consensus among scientists that this should not take place in embryos that will be used for reproduction. This hasn’t stopped some scientists for advocating for the idea that it’s okay to use such technology to modify embryos for the purposes of experimentation but then destroying them later.

As Foht argues, such a notion is morally egregious and harkens back to the dark period of 20th century eugenics. He notes:

In the early 20th century, the eugenics movement meant to “perfect” the human species through “better breeding,” giving rise to the somewhat ridiculous spectacle of “fitter family” contests, and later, to harebrained schemes for collecting sperm from Nobel Prize winners. The eugenics movement was also animated by a terror that the gene pool was degenerating. This motivated some of the most shameful public policies in the history of modern democracy, particularly the compulsory sterilization of those deemed to be threats to future generations. Scientists and lawmakers were so concerned with protecting the human species from the specious threat of genetic degeneration that they were willing to trample the rights and interests of actual human beings.

The practice of human gene editing ventures into the realm of experimental medicine where those most affected—future generations—are unable to give consent. And anyone interested in upholding the integrity of the medical profession and scientific research standards must reject it.

Image by raylopez via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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