When Chinese researchers first edited the genes of a human embryo in a lab dish in 2015, it sparked global outcry and pleas from scientists not to make a baby using the technology, at least for the present.
It was the invention of a powerful gene editing tool, CRISPR, which is cheap and easy to deploy, that made the birth of humans genetically modified in an in-vitro fertilization (IVF) center a theoretical possibility.
Now, it appears it may already be happening.
According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study to employ CRISPR to modify human embryos, then to transfer them into the uterus of mothers and deliver healthy children.
It is unclear if any children have been born. The scientist behind the effort, Jiankui He, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone he declined to comment.
However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.
The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and for China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine to eliminate genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics.
“In this ever more competitive global pursuit of applications for gene editing, we hope to be a stand-out,” He and his team wrote in an ethics statement they submitted last year. They predicted their innovation “will surpass” the invention of in vitro fertilization, whose developer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010.
The technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations, and eventually could affect the entire gene pool. “We have never done anything that will change the genes of the human race, and we have never done anything that will have effects that will go on through the generations,” David Baltimore, a biologist and former president of the California Institute of Technology, who chairs the international summit proceedings, said in a pre-recorded message ahead of the event, which begins Tuesday, November 27.
It appears the organizers of the summit were also kept in the dark about He’s plans.
A person who knows He said his scientific ambitions appear to be in line with prevailing social attitudes in China, including that the larger communal good transcends individual ethics and even international guidelines.
Consider in vitro fertilization (IVF), a breakthrough technique allowing infertile couples to conceive. The 1978 birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby,” caused great controversy at the time, especially among religious leaders, many of whom denounced it as unnatural and warned that it would lead to the commodification of childbearing by separating conception from sexual union. But most Americans did not agree. A Gallup poll at the time found that 60 percent of the public approved of IVF.
By 2010, when Robert G. Edwards, the British scientist who helped pave the way for IVF, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his efforts, IVF was widely accepted. A 2013 Pew survey found that only 12 percent of Americans see IVF as morally wrong. The numbers are roughly the same with American Christians.
As to the commodification of childbearing, consider the childless Tennessee couple who had donor eggs fertilized with the husband’s sperm, creating ten embryos. Four babies later the couple decided they didn’t want the remaining embryos and took to Facebook to offer them to a good home.
“We have six good-quality frozen six-day-old embryos to donate to an amazing family who wants a large family,” the wife posted, according to the New York Times. “We prefer someone who has been married several years in a steady loving relationship and strong Christian background, and who does not already have kids, but wants a boat load.”
According to orthodox Christian teaching, these are six human persons. The embryo donation community has developed a cute euphemism for these unborn children: “frozen snowflakes.”
Meanwhile British government statistics made public in 2012 revealed that 3.5 million embryos were created in UK laboratories since 1991, when record-keeping began. Ninety-three percent never resulted in a pregnancy, and about half were thrown away without even trying. The United States has no reliable records for the sake of comparison, but with a population five times larger than Britain’s, a parallel number would mean 17.5 million unborn human beings were brought into existence in a laboratory, with 16.2 million dying, and 8.8 million thrown into the trash can without an attempt at implantation.
Imagine every man, woman, and child in New York City, or the population of Houston times four, and you will understand the immensity of the death inside fertility clinics. That is, if you believe that life begins at conception, as 52 percent of Americans in a 2015 YouGov poll affirm.
Clearly there are millions of Christians not putting two and two together. Many conservative Christians strongly oppose abortion and back laws restricting it. There is no movement to ban or restrict IVF, even though from the life-begins-at-conception point of view, it exterminates millions of unborn lives. What enables this hypocrisy? The technocratic mentality.
The argument goes like this: babies are good things, so anything technology does to help people have babies is therefore good. Love, as they say, wins. The technocrat decides what he or she wants and, once it is available via technology, rationalizes accepting it. Concealing what technology takes away from us is a feature of the technocratic worldview. We come to think of technological advances as inevitable because they are irresistible. Just as “truth” for the technocrat is what is useful and effective, what is “good” for him is what is possible and desirable.
Technological Man regards as progress anything that expands his choices and gives him more power over nature. Americans admire the “self-made man” because he has liberated himself from dependence on others by his own efforts and is his own creation. For Technological Man, choice matters more than what is chosen. He is not much concerned with what he should desire; rather, he is preoccupied with how he can acquire or accomplish what he desires.