You may have heard of CRISPR babies, which may phonically sound rather macabre, but the acronym stands for the rather prosaic Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats, a type of genetic editing first developed in Japan in 1987 by Yoshizume Ishino at Osaka University, working on the ubiquitous e.coli bacteria, and now very much in vogue for creatures small, as well as a bit larger, such as mice.
As the acronym implies, it’s complicated, but basically the technique allows scientists – in theory – to edit a given gene (a section of DNA in the chromosomes that codes for a certain trait) in every single cell of the body of an organism. This would in effect change the basic genetic code of the organism, and the traits that it expresses. A la Brave New World, but beyond the rather blunt technology imagined in Huxley’s 1931 dystopia, we can – at least in theory, quite different from practice – edit and design humans, much like we would an MS-Word document. Imagine putting in a command to change every ‘f’ in this article to a ‘p’, and you have some idea of what CRISPR might do (presuming every f should become a p, but it’s more complex than than, in a moment).
A rogue Chinese scientist, He Jiankui – whose last name, now that I type it out, ironically sounds a lot like the Polish for ‘thank you’ – claims to have genetically modified a pair of twins, conceived in vitro, so they would be resistant to the HIV virus. CRISPR is simpler and more effective at such early stages of development, when we’re still a blastula of a few dozen cells.
Given the veracity of this claim, what are to make of this, in the moral sense?
The Church discusses genetic editing in her 2008 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitatis Personae, a follow-up to the 1987 Donum Vitae, which first addressed the morality – or lack thereof – of artificial reproduction.
In terms of genetic editing, there are two kinds:
The first is somatic genetic therapy, from the Greek word of ‘body’ (soma). Here, the editing affects only the organism itself (or the person, in this case), with the genetic modification not being passed down to one’s progeny.
The second is germ-line therapy, in which case one’s sex cells are modified (say, if one had a hereditary disease). Here the modification is passed down to future generations.
Here is what the document has to say about the first:
Procedures used on somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit. Such actions seek to restore the normal genetic configuration of the patient or to counter damage caused by genetic anomalies or those related to other pathologies.
Such a therapeutic intervention on the genetic code of the individual can only be done for grave reasons, in the face of disease or disability which is otherwise untreatable:
Given that gene therapy can involve significant risks for the patient, the ethical principle must be observed according to which, in order to proceed to a therapeutic intervention, it is necessary to establish beforehand that the person being treated will not be exposed to risks to his health or physical integrity which are excessive or disproportionate to the gravity of the pathology for which a cure is sought.
Since we know not the full effects of ‘editing genes’, and all the unintended consequences that may ensue, many of them likely deleterious, scientists have cautioned against using the therapy in humans at present, until it has been tested more rigorously and longer-term in animal models.
Germ-line therapy, on the other hand – genetic modification of one’s sex cells (sperm and ova) – is forbidden, at least for now, for the reason that there is no possible way to predict the outcome such a genetic change would have in the uncountable number of future generations – that is, individual persons – who will inherit it, and we cannot subject others to such an incalculable risk. Hence, as the CDF teaches:
The moral evaluation of germ line cell therapy is different. Whatever genetic modifications are effected on the germ cells of a person will be transmitted to any potential offspring. Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and as yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny.
What complicates this at present is that these procedures are connected with morally illicit in vitro fertilization, conceiving the child outside the womb by technological means, an intrinsic evil that can never be countenanced, regardless of the goodness of the life derived therefrom.
And, finally, what is definitely not permitted is any sort of eugenic modifications, an attempt to ‘perfect’ the genetic code for some desired traits, playing God with what we might consider to be ‘ideal’ human attributes, all of which are, as the document says, “arbitrary and questionable”. After all, what is the ideal height of a human? Or eye colour and shape? Or race? Hirsute or smooth? Esau or Jacob? Male or female or – as we might now say – somewhere in-between? Animal-human chimeras?
Need it be said that this would lead to a veritable Pandora’s box of evils, from arbitrary discrimination of the genetically ‘inferior’, to deliberate manipulation of embryos with some preconceived agenda – ponder again Brave New World – to unknown deleterious consequences of messing around with an incredibly complex and delicate genetic balance that is scarcely understood. A brief glance at the burgeoning science of ‘epigenetics’ – genes influencing genes, which in turn influence genes – will offer the reader some idea of what we do not as yet know, and likely never will. If Saint Thomas could say that we will never comprehend completely even the nature of a fly, what does that say of the infinite – and sacred – mystery of the imago Dei that is Man?
We will only end up –as C.S. Lewis predicted – with the abolition of Man himself.
Barring immediate therapeutic need to cure an intractable and serious disease, we should leave our DNA as it is, content with what God gave us through our parents and ancestors, fulfilling our potential – always limited, but far greater than most of us think – by the grace of that same God.
But I fear that this may be unstoppable, barring the imminent return of Christ or some other dramatically divine intervention, and we will continue to undo ourselves, as we have always done.