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A newborn in the maternity ward. (© rufous/Fotolia)

(© rufous/Fotolia)


"All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…"

On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown was born in Oldham, England, the first human born through in vitro fertilization, through the work of Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist, and Robert Edwards, a physiologist. Her birth was greeted with strong (though not universal) expressions of ethical dismay. Yet in 2016, the latest year for which we have data, nearly two percent of the babies born in the United States – and around the same percentage throughout the developed world – were the result of IVF. Few, if any, think of these children as unnatural, monsters, or freaks or of their parents as anything other than fortunate.

How should we view Dr. He today, knowing that the world's eventual verdict on the ethics of biomedical technologies often changes?

On November 25, 2018, news broke that Chinese scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, claimed to have edited the genomes of embryos, two of whom had recently become the new babies, Lulu and Nana. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative.

Times change. So do views. How will Dr. He be viewed in 40 years? And, more importantly, how should we view him today, knowing that the world's eventual verdict on the ethics of biomedical technologies often changes? And when what biomedicine can do changes with vertiginous frequency?

How to determine what is and isn't ethical is above my pay grade. I'm a simple law professor – I can't claim any deeper insight into how to live a moral life than the millennia of religious leaders, philosophers, ethicists, and ordinary people trying to do the right thing. But I can point out some ways to think about these questions that may be helpful.

First, consider two different kinds of ethical commands. Some are quite specific – "thou shalt not kill," for example. Others are more general – two of them are "do unto others as you would have done to you" or "seek the greatest good for the greatest number."

Biomedicine in the last two centuries has often surprised us with new possibilities, situations that cultures, religions, and bodies of ethical thought had not previously had to consider, from vaccination to anesthesia for women in labor to genome editing. Sometimes these possibilities will violate important and deeply accepted precepts for a group or a person. The rise of blood transfusions around World War I created new problems for Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe that the Bible prohibits ingesting blood. The 20th century developments of artificial insemination and IVF both ran afoul of Catholic doctrine prohibiting methods other than "traditional" marital intercourse for conceiving children. If you subscribe to an ethical or moral code that contains prohibitions that modern biomedicine violates, the issue for you is stark – adhere to those beliefs or renounce them.

If the harms seem to outweigh the benefits, it's easy to conclude "this is worrisome."

But many biomedical changes violate no clear moral teachings. Is it ethical or not to edit the DNA of embryos? Not surprisingly, the sacred texts of various religions – few of which were created after, at the latest, the early 19th century, say nothing specific about this. There may be hints, precedents, leanings that could argue one way or another, but no "commandments." In that case, I recommend, at least as a starting point, asking "what are the likely consequences of these actions?"

Will people be, on balance, harmed or helped by them? "Consequentialist" approaches, of various types, are a vast branch of ethical theories. Personally I find a completely consequentialist approach unacceptable – I could not accept, for example, torturing an innocent child even in order to save many lives. But, in the absence of a clear rule, looking at the consequences is a great place to start. If the harms seem to outweigh the benefits, it's easy to conclude "this is worrisome."

Let's use that starting place to look at a few bioethical issues. IVF, for example, once proven (relatively) safe seems to harm no one and to help many, notably the more than 8 million children worldwide born through IVF since 1978 – and their 16 million parents. On the other hand, giving unknowing, and unconsenting, intellectually disabled children hepatitis A harmed them, for an uncertain gain for science. And freezing the heads of the dead seems unlikely to harm anyone alive (except financially) but it also seems almost certain not to benefit anyone. (Those frozen dead heads are not coming back to life.)

Now let's look at two different kinds of biomedical advances. Some are controversial just because they are new; others are controversial because they cut close to the bone – whether or not they violate pre-established ethical or moral norms, they clearly relate to them.

Consider anesthesia during childbirth. When first used, it was controversial. After all, said critics, in Genesis, the Bible says God told Eve, "I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children." But it did not clearly prohibit pain relief and from the advent of ether on, anesthesia has been common, though not universal, in childbirth in western societies. The pre-existing ethical precepts were not clear and the consequences weighed heavily in favor of anesthesia. Similarly, vaccination seems to violate no deep moral principle. It was, and for some people, still is just strange, and unnatural. The same was true of IVF initially. Opposition to all of these has faded with time and familiarity. It has not disappeared – some people continue to find moral or philosophical problems with "unnatural" childbirth, vaccination, and IVF – but far fewer.

On the other hand, human embryonic stem cell research touches deeper issues. Human embryos are destroyed to make those stem cells. Reasonable people disagree on the moral status of the human embryo, and the moral weight of its destruction, but it does at least bring into play clear and broadly accepted moral precepts, such as "Thou shalt not kill." So, at the far side of an individual's time, does euthanasia. More exposure to, and familiarity with, these practices will not necessarily lead to broad acceptance as the objections involve more than novelty.

The first is "what would I do?" The second – what should my government, culture, religion allow or forbid?

Finally, all this ethical analysis must work at two levels. The first is "what would I do?" The second – what should my government, culture, religion allow or forbid? There are many things I would not do that I don't think should be banned – because I think other people may reasonably have different views from mine. I would not get cosmetic surgery, but I would not ban it – and will try not to think ill of those who choose it

So, how should we assess the ethics of new biomedical procedures when we know that society's views may change? More specifically, what should we think of He Jiankui's experiment with human babies?

First, look to see whether the procedure in question violates, at least fairly clearly, some rule in your ethical or moral code. If so, your choice may not be difficult. But if the procedure is unmentioned in your moral code, probably because it was inconceivable to the code's creators, examine the consequences of the act.

If the procedure is just novel, and not something that touches on important moral concerns, looking at the likely consequences may be enough for your ethical analysis –though it is always worth remembering that predicting consequences perfectly is impossible and predicting them well is never certain. If it does touch on morally significant issues, you need to think those issues through. The consequences may be important to your conclusions but they may not be determinative.

And, then, if you conclude that it is not ethical from your perspective, you need to take yet another step and consider whether it should be banned for people who do not share your perspective. Sometimes the answer will be yes – that psychopaths may not view murder as immoral does not mean we have to let them kill – but sometimes it will be no.

What does this say about He Jiankui's experiment? I have no qualms in condemning it, unequivocally. The potential risks to the babies grossly outweighed any benefits to them, and to science. And his secret work, against a near universal scientific consensus, privileged his own ethical conclusions without giving anyone else a vote, or even a voice.

But if, in ten or twenty years, genome editing of human embryos is shown to be safe (enough) and it is proposed to be used for good reasons – say, to relieve human suffering that could not be treated in other good ways – and with good consents from those directly involved as well as from the relevant society and government – my answer might well change. Yours may not. Bioethics is a process for approaching questions; it is not a set of universal answers.

This article opened with a quotation from the 1848 Communist Manifesto, referring to the dizzying pace of change from industrialization and modernity. You don't need to be a Marxist to appreciate that sentiment. Change – especially in the biosciences – keeps accelerating. How should we assess the ethics of new biotechnologies? The best we can, with what we know, at the time we inhabit. And, in the face of vast uncertainty, with humility.

Hank Greely
Henry T. (Hank) Greely is the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and Professor, by courtesy, of Genetics at Stanford University. He specializes in ethical, legal, and social issues arising from advances in the biosciences, particularly from genetics, neuroscience, and human stem cell research. He directs the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences and the Stanford Program on Neuroscience in Society; chairs the California Advisory Committee on Human Stem Cell Research; is the President Elect of the International Neuroethics Society; and serves on the Neuroscience Forum of the National Academy of Medicine; the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academy of Sciences; and the NIH Multi-Council Working Group on the BRAIN Initiative. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007. His book, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, was published in May 2016.


BIG QUESTION OF THE MONTH: Should we use CRISPR, the new technique that enables precise DNA editing, to change the genes of human embryos to eradicate disease--or even to enhance desirable traits? LeapsMag invited three leading experts to weigh in.

CRISPR is producing an important revolution in the biosciences, a revolution that will change our world in fundamental ways. Its implications need to be discussed and debated, and not just by scientists and ethicists. Unfortunately, so far we are debating the wrong issues.

Controversy has raged about editing human genes, particularly the DNA of embryos that could pass the changes down to their descendants. This technology, human germline editing, seems highly unlikely to be broadly available for at least the next few decades; if and when it is, it may well be unimportant.

Human germline editing is unlikely to happen soon because it has important safety risks but almost no significant benefits.

Human germline editing is unlikely to happen soon because it has important safety risks but almost no significant benefits. The risks – harm to babies – are compelling. We care a lot about babies. A technology that worked 95 percent of the time (and produced disabled or dying infants "only" five percent of the time) would be a disaster. Our concern for babies will lead, at the least, to rigorous legal requirements for preapproval safety testing. Many countries will just impose flat bans.

But these risks also have implications beyond safety regulation. For this technology to take off, physicians, assisted reproduction clinics, and geneticists will have to be willing to put their reputations – and their malpractice liability – on the line. And prospective mothers will have to be willing to take unknown risks with their children.

Sometimes, large and unknown risks are worth taking, but not here. For the next few decades, human germline editing offers almost no substantial benefits, for health or for enhancement.

Prospective parents already have a tried and true alternative to avoid having children with genetic diseases: preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In PGD, clinicians remove cells from three- to five-day-old embryos. Those cells are then tested to see which embryos would inherit the disease and which would not. This technology has been in use for over 27 years and is safe and effective. Rather than engaging in editing an embryo's disease-causing DNA, parents can just select embryos without those DNA variations. For so-called autosomal recessive diseases, three out of four embryos, on average, will be disease free; for autosomal dominant diseases, half will be.

Only a handful of prospective parents would need to use gene editing to avoid genetic disease.

Couples where each has the same recessive condition (cystic fibrosis) or where one of them has the terrible luck to have two copies of the DNA variant for a dominant disease (Huntington's disease). In those cases, the prospective parents would need to stay alive long enough to be able, and be sufficiently healthy to want, to have children. In a world of 7.3 billion humans, there will be some such cases, but they will probably be no more than a few thousand – or hundred.

People are also concerned about germline editing for genetic enhancement. But this is also unlikely anytime soon. We know basically nothing about genetic variations that enhance people beyond normal. For example, we know hundreds of genes that, when damaged, affect intelligence – but these all cause very low intelligence. We know of no variations that non-trivially increase it.

Over the next few decades, we might (or might not) learn about complex diseases where several genes are involved, making embryo selection less useful. And we might (or might not) learn about genetic enhancements involving DNA sequences not typically found in prospective parents and so not available to embryo selection. By that time, the safety issues could be resolved.

And, even then, how worried should we be – and about what? A bit, but not very and not about much.

"The human germline genome is not the holy essence of humanity."

The human germline genome is not the holy essence of humanity. For one thing, it doesn't really exist. There are 7.3 billion human germline genomes; each of us has a different one. And those genomes change every generation. I do not have exactly the same genetic variations my parents received from my grandparents; my children do not have exactly the ones I received from my parents. The DNA changed, through mutation, during each generation.

And our editing will usually be insignificant in the context of the whole human genome. For medical purposes, we will change some rare DNA variations that cause disease into the much more common DNA variations that do not cause disease. Rare, nasty variants will become rarer, but civilization changes these frequencies all the time. For instance, the use of insulin has increased the number of people with DNA variations that predispose people to type 1 ("juvenile") diabetes – because now those people live long enough to reproduce. Even agriculture changed our DNA, leading, for example, to more copies of starch-digesting genes. And, in any event, what is the meaningful difference between "fixing" a disease gene in an embryo or waiting to fix it with gene therapy in a born baby . . . other than avoiding the need to repeat the gene therapy in the next generation?

If genetic enhancement ever becomes possible in a non-trivial way, it would raise important questions, but questions about enhancement generally and not fundamentally about genetics. Enhancement through drugs, prosthetics, brain-computer interfaces, genes, or tools (like the laptop I wrote this on) all raise similar ethical issues. We can use the decades we will have to try to think more systematically about the ethical and policy issues for all enhancements. We should not panic about germline genetic enhancement.

One superficially appealing argument is that we are not wise enough to change our own genomes. This ignores the fact that we have been changing our genomes, inadvertently, since at least the dawn of civilization. We do not have to be wise enough to change our genome perfectly; we just need to be wise enough to change it better than the random and unforeseen ways we change it now. That should not be beyond our power.

Human germline editing will not be a concern for several decades and it may never be an important concern. What should we be paying attention to?

Non-human genome editing. Governments, researchers, and even do-it-yourself hobbyists can use CRISPR, especially when coupled with a technique called "gene drive," to change the genomes of whole species of living things – domestic or wild; animal, vegetable, or microbial – cheaply, easily, and before we even know it is happening. We care much less about mosquito babies than human ones and our legal structures are not built for wise and nuanced regulation of this kind of genome editing. Those issues demand our urgent attention – if we can tear ourselves away from dramatic but less important visions of "designer babies."

Editor's Note: Check out the viewpoints expressing condemnation and enthusiastic support.

Hank Greely
Henry T. (Hank) Greely is the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and Professor, by courtesy, of Genetics at Stanford University. He specializes in ethical, legal, and social issues arising from advances in the biosciences, particularly from genetics, neuroscience, and human stem cell research. He directs the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences and the Stanford Program on Neuroscience in Society; chairs the California Advisory Committee on Human Stem Cell Research; is the President Elect of the International Neuroethics Society; and serves on the Neuroscience Forum of the National Academy of Medicine; the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academy of Sciences; and the NIH Multi-Council Working Group on the BRAIN Initiative. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007. His book, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, was published in May 2016.