Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Genome Editing, Designer Babies, and the Common Good

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


By Michelle Crotwell Kirtley
April 11, 2014

Although relatively absent from the news lately, the pace of progress in the field of biotechnology continues to accelerate. Researchers have now developed technology (called CRISPR, for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) that can specifically modify DNA in human cells, allowing researchers to “edit out” damaging mutations with precision at the level of a single DNA base pair. While still in its infancy, the technique could significantly improve the health and quality of life for many people who would otherwise suffer from debilitating or deadly diseases, including HIV/AIDS and cystic fibrosis. 

As is the case with “traditional” gene therapy, researchers using CRISPR to fix genetic problems inside the cell must find a way to deliver the edited cells to the right location in the body or to deliver the editing machinery to the affected tissues or organs. This is relatively straightforward in the case of something like sickle cell anemia. Researchers would remove primordial bone marrow cells from an affected patient, use CRISPR to correct the sickle-cell mutation in the lab, and reinsert the edited cells into the patient, who would then be able to make normal blood cells.

For other conditions, the treatment protocol is harder to envision.  In fact, what may be the most straightforward technical solution can also present some of the most serious ethical challenges.  CRISPR could also be used to modify the DNA of early embryos or correct mutations in human sperm or egg cells prior to conception, opening the door not only to new treatments for disease but also to avenues of human enhancement previously beyond reach.

Currently, parents can “design” embryos during the process of in vitro fertilization by selecting the most desirable embryos for implantation, either by choosing embryos that do not contain certain disease markers or embryos that do contain desirable attributes. CRISPR involves correcting existing mutations or adding favorable traits, and need not involve selecting against any embryos. But if scientists researching dementia and Alzheimer’s were able to identify important genes for memory and find mutations that hinder or improve memory, might they then be asked to modify the DNA of an early embryo to ensure that the child will have an excellent memory?

Is this type of human enhancement ethical? 

To answer this question, we must wrestle with the fundamental issue of what it means to be human and the role of human variation and suffering. These issues are challenging enough when considering technological enhancement of adults. But they become even more complicated when technology enables parents to select the traits of their children, furthering the temptation to see children as a means to an end, as commodities to be designed to meet others’ specifications.  Then, there is the added issue of who gets to decide which enhancements or corrections are permissible and which aren’t.

The prescient film Gattaca presents a world in which almost all children have their features chosen from a menu prior to conception.  If that is not the world we want, then how do we as Christians play a role in shepherding these technologies towards a different view of the common good?

There is not a simple formula for Christian engagement with bioethical issues. Developing a robust bioethical framework for wise public policy around issues of human enhancement is beyond the scope of this piece, but we can keep a few principles in mind as we grapple with these questions.

First, Christians must continue to embrace science and technology as a God-given gift. Only then will our convictions about the wise use of those technologies be heard and considered.  Similarly, we must encourage gifted fellow believers to pursue careers in science, philosophy, bioethics, and public policy. Christians who are widely respected in their fields will be in the best position to engage the public square on these issues. Third, Christians must work towards justice and human dignity for people of all ages from conception to death, so that our efforts to shape science policy for the common good are seen as a continuation of efforts to bring justice rather than Luddite attempts to hinder progress. Finally, we must understand the right roles and responsibilities of government, family, and other related institutions in order to craft sound public policy in this arena in a way that furthers justice for people of all faiths or none.

Although this debate is scientifically and philosophically highly technical, it is not simply theoretical. In vitro fertilization clinics around the country allow parents to use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to maximize the health and other attributes of their embryos. Technologies such as CRISPR will continue to advance. As Christians, we must engage both the culture and our government to help ensure that the technologies enhance rather than subvert human dignity.

- Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Bioethics & Public Policy Associate at the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity and a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill. She is also a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice and a 2003 alumnae of the Center’s Civitas program in faith and public affairs. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”