On August 2, 2017, Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s research lab at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland published their results on the editing of DNA in human embryos, the first known attempt in the United States. The Mitalipov lab set out to correct the mutated MYBPC3 gene in human embryos, which often causes a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, characterized by abnormally thick heart muscles. The authors stated that this condition is “the commonest cause of sudden death in otherwise healthy young athletes.”
The technique they used, the CRISPR-Cas9 system, is a gene-editing technique borrowed from bacteria that naturally use it as a defense mechanism against viruses. This system is cheap and accurate, and it can edit the genetic material of any organism. With it, scientists can change a single chemical letter in the human genome, which is three billion letters long. Imagine taking a pencil and changing one letter in a multi-volume encyclopedia. Not surprisingly, this revolutionary technique has changed science and medicine since it was developed five years ago. Most notably it is currently being used for the eradication of mosquito populations to thwart the spread of Zika virus and malaria.
Using the CRISPR system combined with in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the Mitalipov Lab replaced the mutated version of the MYBPC3 gene with the normal, healthy version. They found that the number of errors that occurred during this gene-editing process was significantly less than the number of errors in previous attempts to edit human embryos. This work represents a significant scientific advance towards the efficient and reliable genetic editing of human embryos.
It could allow scientists to perform two types of genetic manipulation. The first is therapeutic gene-editing, which could be used to cure diseases, cancer, and other sicknesses in human embryos. Some have called this approach “genetic surgery.” The second is non-therapeutic gene-editing, which could improve the patient’s physical capacities. This genetic manipulation would produce designer babies, who would have superior traits chosen by their parents.
These possibilities have sparked discussion in both the scientific and public sectors. The question on the commentators’ lips is simple: “when and how should this revolutionary tool be used on humans?” And how is a Catholic called to respond?
To begin, we must acknowledge that the Gospel of Life reveals that human beings have intrinsic dignity. Thus there are limits on the kinds of experimental and medical procedures one can perform on humans. In principle, it is morally permissible to correct a diseased gene in a human embryo, provided that the procedure is safe and effective, and does not violate the dignity of person. This rules out the procedure followed by the Mitalipov Lab, since it made use of IVF, which violates the dignity of the person and the integrity of the conjugal act. But truly therapeutic gene-editing, if it is safe and effective, is good. A better procedure, which does not involve IVF, may yet be found.
But in contrast to therapeutic gene-editing, which aims to heal the patient, non-therapeutic gene-editing attempts to improve these capacities beyond the normal level. According to Dignitas Personae, an instruction from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in response to new bioethical questions, this type of manipulation “would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities” (§27). Health professionals, scientists and parents would take the place of God in choosing certain qualities based upon “arbitrary and questionable criteria,” establishing further inequality within society. This non-therapeutic gene-editing is a rejection of the gift of life that God gives to children and parents alike. It is a rejection of oneself and God’s creating hand.
In the end, we have to be vigilant with technology. As Pope St. John Paul II warned, “If the moral truth revealed in the dignity of the human person does not discipline and direct the explosive energies of technology, a new era of barbarism, rather than a springtime of hope, may well follow this century of tears” (Address to the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of the U.S.A., 24 October 1998). No matter what invention comes over the horizon in this century of biology, we must use it for the common good, never losing sight of who we are as human persons and never forgetting to Whom we must return.