Does it fit within our Christian values to manufacture a human baby? More specifically, does it fit within our Catholic values?
Our children will inherit an extremely difficult world if we embrace the new genetic engineering technologies.
What is genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering (or gene editing) is a procedure that strategically changes the genes in an organism’s DNA.
Almost every living organism has DNA, which is nothing more than a tiny string of molecules in every cell. A gene is a segment of DNA that does most of the work in passing on characteristics from parents to their children. Some genes, for example, may cause a human body to have blue eyes, while other genes may influence behavior by causing an organism to run away when attacked. One gene can have multiple influences on the body, although most characteristics are generated by a combination of genes.
A single gene may include anywhere from a few hundred DNA bases up to more than two million. There may be 25,000 genes in a human being, although scientists do not know this for certain.
Researchers have developed, and are further researching, technologies that allow them to remove, replace, and even add genes to a person’s DNA. Scientists hope to develop therapies that will remove unwanted genetic characteristics, or add, or enhance desired characteristics, for the lifetime of a person. In most research publicly reported so far, the characteristics targeted are diseases, abnormalities, or disabilities.
Some researchers and companies will be more interested in highly profitable opportunities to increase capabilities like intelligence and strength, design characteristics like eye color and gender, as well as extend lifespan. Simple cosmetic therapies are certainly possible based on current knowledge, but enhancing capabilities like intelligence, or character traits like empathy, will be very complex. On the other hand, recent revelations about secret experiments have demonstrated how quickly researchers might stumble unexpectedly upon therapies that can enhance abilities like memory and efficient brain function.
Two types of gene editing
There are two main types of genetic engineering, and it is important to understand the difference. Most of the therapies being developed and used today are performed on adults or children who are born. These therapies, called “somatic cell therapies,” produce changes in the person that are very unlikely to have any effect on the nature of future generations. Human genetics is extremely complex and influenced by many factors, so there is no way to know if it is 100% safe. The health benefits seem to be overwhelmingly important here.
Genetic engineering performed on human embryos, however, is a much different story. This kind of genetic engineering, which is done soon after conception, is likely to have more fundamental effects on the developing person, and there is a greater chance that genetic mutations, damage to DNA, or environmental factors can cause unpredicted effects during the person’s lifetime. Genetic engineering of embryos is also known as “germline” editing (or “genome” editing) because the changes made in DNA can be inherited by future generations.
Questions about tampering with human embryos
Genetic engineering of embryos raises many questions about the physical risks to the engineered person and future generations as well as moral, psychological, and relationship issues.
Can we predict the effects of genetic engineering well enough to justify the benefits?
Who decides? Who protects the interests of the engineered individual or future generations affected? Can we trust the researchers, scientists, and clinics to act morally? Who will regulate this effectively? Can we trust the government regulators and politicians?
What happens to the psychology and identity of an engineered person? What happens to their relationships with parents, peers, and society at large?
Does the procedure itself involve immoral actions?
Is manufacturing babies really in line with our true purpose as children of God?
The morality of the procedures
At first glance, it seems that genetic engineering of human embryos, if done to remove inherited diseases or disabilities, is a wonderful act of compassion. There is much more to consider, however, regarding the way genetic engineering actually will occur.
The Church recognizes the legitimately compassionate aim of genetic engineering in the few documents that give guidance on genetic engineering therapies.
For example, in the Vatican’s 1987 bioethical instruction, Donum Vitae, Pope John Paul II had the following to say about this technology:
A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from chromosomal defects will, in principle, be considered desirable, provided it is directed to the true promotion of the personal well-being of the individual without doing harm to his integrity or worsening his conditions of life. (n. 3)
Referring to non-therapeutic genetic engineering, Donum Vitae states that
… such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities, while privileging qualities that happen to be appreciated by a certain culture or society; such qualities do not constitute what is specifically human. … [The attempt] to create a new type of human being [is] an ideological element in which man tries to take the place of his Creator. (n. 4)
Catholic ethical principles
Given these two statements, we should consider the following ethical principles:
- To be morally licit, the genetic engineering therapy must be therapeutic. That means that it must improve the health of the new person, not otherwise alter their characteristics or enhance abilities (like strength, intelligence, etc.) to meet the parents’ or scientists’ idea of an ideal person.
- Genetic engineering is not more important than the life or well-being of human persons. The research required for effective genetic engineering, however, involves experimenting on and killing many thousands of human embryos. Genetic engineering procedures will generally include the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), which has been condemned by the Church as immoral. IVF involves generating multiple human embryos, selecting one for implanting in the mother, and killing or freezing the remaining embryos.
- The intentions of the adults involved in the procedure matter. An adult who freely participates in or directs a procedure that kills human embryos cannot perceive those embryos as dignified persons. The procedure therefore is not intended to provide a therapeutic benefit for an existing, dignified patient. The procedure is instead intended as manipulation of an embryo as raw material for a future person – a baby who exists only in the imagination of the adults. Genetic engineering of a human embryo is therefore, at least in the intentions of the participants, a process of manufacturing a person who is valued only after the procedure has taken place and the embryo develops into a born baby.
To be clear, these are issues proposed here for your consideration. The Church has not specifically weighed in on such considerations, although we might understand her direction through her combined teachings.
The many risks of gene editing
DNA edits that are inherited by future generations could be highly unpredictable. When Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced in late 2018 he had not only edited the genes of twin embryos but then guided them to birth – an experiment that was risky and violated an array of ethical research guidelines – the condemnations by the international community of scientists were swift and harsh.
Jiankui claimed to be attempting to alter a gene that would cause the twin girls to be largely immune to HIV (the virus associated with AIDS). There was no therapeutic benefit, however, for there was no reason to expect that the girls needed the protection. The gene that was altered may also affect the mental abilities of the girls, and it is unknown whether Jiankui intended such effects (he never said that he was aware of them). Nobody knows what would happen to future generations if the girls should later bear children. Jiankui reportedly also experimented on a third embryo that has been born.
Russian scientist, Denis Rebrikov, announced last month that he fully intended to bring more genetically engineered embryos to birth, and there are five couples who want to work with him to cure their embryonic children of blindness. Rebrikov has expressed some harshly anti-religious rhetoric. He said in an interview with Science magazine, “These people who are opposed want to have all these things in their children but only by ‘divine providence,’ not by science. They are liars or stupid.”
There is a growing number of people called biohackers who are experimenting with genetic engineering in their homes. Josiah Zayner, owner of a biotech firm he runs out of his garage, found out in May that he is under investigation for practicing medicine without a license. To gain awareness of his product sales and experimental efforts, Zayner publicly injected himself with a gene editing solution and, bizarrely, performed a fecal transplant on himself. Bryan Bishop, whose background is in computer programming and Bitcoin investing, has formed a company in Texas that intends to help parents create “designer babies” for such purposes as greater strength and long lives. He claims to have at least one customer.
Opening Pandora’s Box
Genetic engineering of human embryos and of germline editing is enormously complex, and for that reason, certainty and predictability are impossible. It is rare, for instance, to find a single gene that always has a specific effect on an organism. Most characteristics or abilities that we can identify in organisms are “caused” by a number of genes. The effect of genes often depends on how they interact. Even a basic human characteristic like height is influenced by tens of thousands of genetic variations. Each gene influences multiple characteristics. It is therefore never possible to know if a gene or combination of genes might have effects that were previously unknown.
It is only recently that scientists have understood the functions of 99% of our genes. Previously, scientists thought that these “noncoding” genes, called pejoratively, “junk DNA,” which means they do not instruct the body in the making of proteins, had no purpose at all. Now they realize that this kind of DNA is actually involved in turning the protein-coding genes “on” or “off”. The research on these genes is just getting underway.
As noted, the influence of a single gene on an organism can change depending on the way it interacts with other genes, proteins, and bacteria. Genes can also mutate, which is when random “mistakes”, damage, or interaction with other substances interfere with the process of duplicating DNA in cells. The new DNA is not an exact copy of the original DNA. In order to know whether a gene will have the expected influence, scientists need to know for sure whether the gene has or has not mutated. The possibilities for gene mutations are unlimited and unpredictable, and scientists do not know what effect most mutations will have on the body.
New persons manufactured by altering the DNA of embryos may have severe difficulties in relationships with achievement-expectant parents and a society that perceives a warrant for further discrimination against people with disabilities. The wealthy are more likely to afford any new genetic enhancement therapies, exacerbating inequality in our society.
We can also ask: How does a genetically-engineered person, altered by their parents’ efforts after their creation, perceive a continuous identity from their creation forward? How difficult will it be for such persons to think of themselves as unique, divinely created, unrepeatable children of God?
What kind of relationship will they be able to have with God?
If we engage in genetic engineering of human embryos, or simply allow it in our society, what kind of relationship will we have with God?
Time is running out for pondering such questions.