Designer Babies

Is Gene-Editing Babies Now 'Monstrously Immoral'?

Flinging around such terms is not helpful and does not advance the debate.


Dimtry Kotin/Dreamstime

Widespread condemnation is the chief response to Chinese bioengineer He Jiankui's claim that he used CRISPR gene-editing to alter the genes of embryos who have now been born as twin girls. The editing aimed to increase their resistance to HIV infection. The Chinese government claims that it has now shut down He's work.

New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan denounces He's efforts as a "moral monstrosity of an experiment." Just how morally monstruous is what He claims to have done?

Caplan argues that He "is a moral idiot who has engaged in a renegade experiment that may well setback the very promising field of germline genetic engineering a decade or more." Why would this set back the field? "Fear of changing genes that are passed from one generation to the next?—?germline engineering?—?runs deep," explains Caplan. "Altering the inherited properties of our children strikes many as manufacturing people. Add a bit of 20th century eugenics à la Nazi Germany into the mix and fear turns rapidly into prohibition."

If the fear of germline gene-editing really does run deep, one big reason is that many of Caplan's fellow bioethicists have long been scaremongering about it. However, a recent Pew poll finds that such fear does not run all that deeply among Americans—72 percent of respondents said that changing a baby's genetic characteristics to treat a serious disease that a baby would have at birth is OK; and 60 percent agreed that gene-editing was appropriate to reduce the risk of a serious disease that would occur over the lifetime of a prospective baby.

Caplan may have a point though about He's work provoking folks to demand prohibition. Sadly, in response to He's claims, CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang has done just that and is now calling for a global "moratorium on implantation of edited embryos."

Much to his credit, Caplan does note: "I am not among those who think it's unethical to change the genes of our children. If it is possible to eliminate forever diseases such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, sickle cell disease, fragile X syndrome, Huntington's disease, and a slew of other genetic killers that plague humanity, then I think germline genetic engineering is ethically sound and must be pursued."

So if germline editing in itself is not immoral, what is ethically wrong with what He claims to have done? Caplan gives five reasons: safety, lack of disclosure with regard to a published paper on the ethics of therapeutic reproductive technologies, non-publication of results, conflict of interest, and the provisions that may or may not have been made in case the kids turn out to have been harmed.

With respect to safety, He claims that he validated his engineering techniques via three years of work involving mice, monkeys, and then human embryos. One worry among researchers is that CRISPR may have caused off-target mutations in the twins' genomes. Such mutations might hit other genes causing them to malfunction in deleterious ways.

How big a concern is this? Harvard geneticist George Church offers some perspective on CRISPR off-target risks in an interview at Science. Asked about the risk of off-target effects, Church observed, "Let's be quantitative before we start being accusatory. It might be detectable but not clinical. There's no evidence of off-target causing problems in animals or cells. We have pigs that have dozens of CRISPR mutations and a mouse strain that has 40 CRISPR sites going off constantly and there are off-target effects in these animals, but we have no evidence of negative consequences."

Caplan argues that He's ethics paper must be withdrawn because its conclusions are suspect owing to the fact that He's co-authors must have known about his embryo gene-editing before they collaborated on it. By the way, it was published online two days after the revelations of He's work. One notably correct observation in the ethics paper is that, in describing prior biotech reproductive advances, journalists have constantly deployed

"the overused term 'designer baby': this is an epithet aimed at invoking disgust, which is a common mechanism behind hate. Parents hope to protect their newborn's life from a known debilitating, familial disease. Call them 'gene surgery babies' if one must or better yet ordinary people who have had surgery to save their life or prevent a disease."

For what it's worth, the ethical principles outlined in the paper do not seem all that controversial. They include using gene-editing only for serious dieases, respecting the gene-edited child's autonomy, and rejecting genetic determinism.

Caplan has He dead-to-rights when he objects to the fact that He has not published his results so that other researchers can evaluate his claims. Science by YouTube video is not science. He claims that the results of his research were "leaked unexpectedly" and that he has now submitted a paper detailing his work to a scientific journal. Given the uproar, however, it will take a very brave editor to publish it. For the sake of the field and the twins, let's hope that such a brave editor exists.

Caplan also points out He has filed patent applications on his work. This presents a number of possible conflicts of interest, not least of which is that patients are being recruited who may not know the He stands to benefit financially from his research. Interestingly, the author disclosure statement in the ethics paper claims "no competing financial interests exist." Really?

Finally, Caplan suggests a lack of provisions for addressing health problems that might later arise from the twins' gene-editing is ethically suspect. Is that right? Consider that children born by means of other assisted reproductive techniques are at a slightly higher risk of birth defects than naturally conceived kids. Physicans are not generally held responsible for those outcomes. Assuming similar levels of informed consent, why should the standards be any different for the twins? In any case, He says that he plans to "monitor the twins' health for the next 18 years, with the hope they will consent as adults for continued monitoring and support."

As noted, Caplan fully appreciates the power of germline editing to alleviate human suffering, but flinging around terms like "moral monstrosity" is not helpful in furthering the discussions that will lead to achieving that goal. Such talk will set back, rather than advance, this important research.

Harvard Medical School Dean George Daley offered a more measured response: "The fact that the first instance [of gene-editing] came forward as a misstep should in no way leave us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider the very, very positive efforts that could come forward," Daley said. "I hope we just don't stick our heads in the sand."

We should all hope so.

NEXT: Opioid-Related Deaths Keep Rising As Pain Pill Prescriptions Fall

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. So…if I stick a baby in a crisper I might get a mutant?

    1. Make sure to include the flight mutation. Super healing is also good.

  2. Caplan He has He dead-to-rights when he objects to the fact that He has not published his results so that other researchers can evaluate his claims.
    I He couldn’t resist.

    1. I wonder how many Christians got a temporary confusion, and how many neo-neo-feminists got a temporary mad-on. If He was Her, would the Christians been even madder, and would the neo-neo-feminists been mollified and the transgenders still felt left out?

      1. They would be madder if He was Kim creating his super soldiers.

    2. Too many pronouns in the Bailey article. “He” did this, “he” said that. How are we supposed to know which he he is talking about?

      1. Who?

        1. Xe?

        2. Who’s on first.

  3. Compare with the late 1970’s controversy over “test tube babies”, aka the now very common and not-so-controversial process known as in vitro fertilization.

    1. Pretty much every horror story prediction made the IVF critics has panned out. People are creating embryos to freeze and then never using them. Peopl are creating embryoes and then selectively aborting the fetuses to get the right sex and so forth. It is only not controversial because people have nomalized things that were considered horrific then.

      1. >>>Pretty much every horror story prediction made

        since the Renaissance has fizzled.

      2. There is nothing horrific about destroying embryos, John. Stop with the pearl clutching and the preformationism.

  4. designer-babies is where science is going to lie down to the flat-earthers?

  5. Did someone pass this article through a “s/hi/He’/g” regular expression or something?

  6. BEIJING, Nov. 29 (Xinhua) — Chinese authorities on Thursday ordered suspending research activities of persons involved in the gene-edited babies incident, denouncing the matter as “extremely abominable in nature” and in violation of Chinese laws and science ethics.

    The gene-edited twins matter reported by the media has brazenly violated Chinese laws and regulations and breached the science ethics bottom line, which is both shocking and unacceptable, Xu Nanping, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, told Xinhua.

    China’s National Health Commission and the China Association for Science and Technology also spoke against the incident.

    He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher based in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, claimed on Monday to have altered the DNA of twin girls born a few weeks ago to prevent them from contracting HIV. His claim remains unproven but the incident has triggered heated debate in the scientific community and on social media.

    1. A lot of hypocritical virtue signaling on the part of the Chinese. Gene editing and implanting human embryos is very small potatoes compared to some of the things the Chinese government does routinely.

      1. C: You are entirely correct.

    2. Anyone want to bet that “suspending research activities” will keep China’s elite from scoring a little Crisper nip and tuck for their own offspring?

      1. Woo-Hoo, excellent point! I do recall stories of the USSR having special stores with good-quality foreign goods, but only Commie-Party members could shop there!

        “We are all equal, but some are more equal than others”.

        1. Prophetic on an Orwellian scale, w/out a doubt…

      2. Editing everyone to have huge tits, men and women alike.

        1. Yes, that would only be fairness and equality all around!!!

        2. I thought everyone in Asia already had huge tits. Haven’t you seen any anime?

  7. This is tricky to me. We are talking about, essentially, experimenting on Humans. I have no problem with experimenting on humans with their consent. However it is fundamentally impossible to experiment on an unborn fetus with its consent.

    I suppose the argument could be made that parents hold authority over their children in “Trust”. Yet there has to be a common interpretation of when a parent is violating that trust. A parent can’t sell a kid into slavery. They can’t enter them into a contract that will kill them.

    At the end, I tend to agree with the framework above. There needs to be a reasonable assurance that this isn’t experimentation with risks that violate a parent’s trust over the child’s consent. Efficacy, research, etc should be the test. However, my big concern is that many people will ere on the side of progress, damn the fetuses destroyed, because they don’t see this as a human rights issue. That is they do not see the fetus as a human held in trust by the parents, but rather full property of the parent.

    1. The justification to get around the consent issue is that since nature is going to make some choice anyway, it is okay for someone else to make the choice. People actually think that makes sense.

      1. O & J: You do know that not one person has ever given their consent to be born much less to be born with the set of genes that they have, right?

        1. My freedom to side-step genetic diseases (some of them horrible) in my family is (as this tech progresses) being infringed on, more and more, by busy-bodies who know neither me nor my family, or my diseases. Yes, I understand that some young bio-hacker might want to create a man-bear-pig in his garage, because it would be “cool”, and it would be best to prevent that kind of thing. But meanwhile, excessive caution stands in the way of preventing suffering!

          Right now, I already hear 2 arguments: ‘1) We can’t do it because it might not work perfectly, and ‘2) If it did work perfectly, we might end up with too many perfect people, and then the old-style imperfect people might feel stigmatized. So we can never do any of this!

          Yet if humans had always taken this kind of attitude towards any “new tech”, then we’d still be hanging out in dirty, smelly, musty caves.

          1. Your freedom to conduct human experiments on other people is being infringed. If you want to alter your own genes, have fun. You start altering other people’s genes without their consent, that is a problem.

          2. If we improve cars or highway designs, to prevent human disease and suffering, no one complains. Sure, we are reducing “human diversity” by reducing the number of cripples, wheel-chair bound and otherwise. But we collectively are wise enough to reduce suffering as much as we can. And no one says “Oh, but by reducing highway accidents, we are going to stigmatize those fewer people left on wheelchairs, so no, we can NOT improve highway safety, for that reason.” (Notice also that no one volunteers to cripple themselves to add to human diversity).

            But then suddenly when genetics-based methods of reducing human suffering arrive, totally different standards are applied! If I (as match-maker) recommend that so-and-so should try and date this other so-and-so, and they have a baby the old-fashioned way, and the baby is born with horrible diseases and suffering, am I held to account? Absolutely not! But if I as a genetics researcher help them make babies with a 99.999% chance of suffering being prevented, then suddenly “society” (AKA big government nannies) decide that I as genetics researcher MUST be held accountable of any one-in-a-billion bad results! What gives, is this in any way sensible or responsible, to think this way?

            Nothing is perfect? Luddite scare-mongering and fear of ever trying a better way, isn’t perfect, either. Else maybe we should go back to living in caves?

          3. I gather you know absolutely nothing about this topic. This is not some random “new tech”, but incredibly dangerous tech, unlike anything that you can ever imagine.

            Imperfect as we are, it stands to reason that we have evolved to this present state, not by artifically modifying our code, but by practicing techniques to better our stock. It is a system of checks-and-balances. It keeps us grounded, it keeps us human and any part of this perceived frailty is part of humanity. We are the products of our own making (no, really).

            In its place, within this generation, we suddenly get the keys to the kingdom and then decide to alter the essence of the system. We do not know enough at this point to understand what we are going to create, but as a species, we are capable and foolish enough to presume that we do.

            When future generations look back at the collective “us”, I hope that they will see that not everyone lacked imagination or altruism.

            1. “We do not know enough at this point to understand what we are going to create…”

              How about, we are going to create NOT SUFFERING from stupid inherited diseases and defects? See Ron Bailey’s quote from “bioethicist” (nattering nanny) Caplan: “I am not among those who think it’s unethical to change the genes of our children. If it is possible to eliminate forever diseases such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, sickle cell disease, fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, and a slew of other genetic killers that plague humanity, then I think germline genetic engineering is ethically sound and must be pursued.”

              And Caplan is just scratching the surface of such nasty diseases. Have you ever even bothered to talk to people who have this in their germ line, and would like OUT from underneath such suffering? If even such a professional nattering nanny as Caplan can see this, then why can’t you?

        2. I don’t get to consent to being hit by lightening. That doesn’t give you the right to hit me with a tazer. Nature not having any moral culpability doesn’t relieve you of having such or give you the right to enforce you riwll on someone without their consent.

          1. “…or give you the right to enforce your will on someone without their consent.”

            Any reasonably strict reading of that would preclude making babies the old-fashioned way as well! That is plain and simple!

        3. O & J: You do know that not one person has ever given their consent to be born much less to be born with the set of genes that they have, right?

          That’s why everyone ever born came into this world as a result of a NAP violation. Christianity had it all backwards! We do not come into this world as sinners. We all come in as victims!

          1. CHM: Have you now become an acolyte of Rousseau? 😉

          2. That’s what I tell my mother whenever she tries to pressure me into doing something with the family.

        4. There is an ethical difference between a natural process happening and deliberate intervention in which “what else does it change” factors are poorly understood, at best.

          That does not mean this should be abandoned, but the fact that it cannot be done on anyone who can consent suggests it should not be used frivolously.

          1. MR: Do you suspect that many parents would “frivolously” resort to this technology when the old-fashioned way to reproduce is cheaper and more fun?

            1. Depending on what you mean by “many”, yes.

        5. O & J: You do know that not one person has ever given their consent to be born much less to be born with the set of genes that they have, right?

          I am sorry to miss this response Mr Bailey, because I really do respect that you engage the commentariat in your articles.

          Nevertheless, you did not engage my argument. I have kind of gotten this nihilist response from you before- the coy suggestion that since a fetus never consented to birth, consent should be taken off the table as any sort of guide. The problem here is that the only logical outcome of your argument is that consent simply doesn’t matter. Experiment on children, prisoners, employees- what does it matter?

          However we know that to live in civilization we have adopted these ethics rules in order to consistently make judgements, even when people come up with new ways (like gene editing) of pushing the boundaries. Which is why I said that consent can matter even if the child is unable to consent- and guess what, this works for all sorts of cases (coma patients, mentally disabled, etc). That is, consent is held in trust by a trustee- the parents.

          However, if you are going to have a trustee, you are going to have standards on making sure that the trustee isn’t violating that trust. I may have the trust of consent over my kids, but it is a violation of that trust to act in ways detrimental to their human rights. I can’t exploit them.

          1. But, Overt, you’re going against the prog theory that the carrier of an unborn child has complete agency over that developing human being, up to, and including, a death sentence.
            It is a raison d’etre in the prog world.

  8. This article is way more fun if you read He as the capitalized version of “he”.

  9. The Chinese government claims that it has now shut down He’s work.

    Should be “His work.”

  10. Is Gene-Editing Babies Now ‘Monstrously Immoral’?
    Flinging around such terms is not helpful and does not advance the debate.

    In general people who fling around such terms aren’t interested in advancing the debate so much as they’re interested in shutting it down.

  11. Seems like a logical future step in human evolution, which has always been accelerated, or at least influenced, by our uniquely agile tool use and brainpower. The (at least) two big problems are meddling with the genome without fully understanding what we’re doing (can’t just throw a baby in the dumpster). And of course the ethics of what would rapidly become a dystopian genetically two-tiered society.

    1. I don’t know about that. If we ever get to the point where we’re looking to colonize other planets it may actually become a necessity. Additionally if the embryo isn’t developing as planned in the sous vide bag then it will very likely be recycled simply because expending the energy into following through to completion could be deleterious for the entire population.

      1. We better figure out when an embryo becomes a person quickly.

        1. Given the situation of colonizing other planets I can’t see how it wouldn’t become anything other than a command society for at least the first generation or three and one of the first bags being tossed from the train will be any semblance of individual wants. It won’t be like settling the west where killing a buffalo was an option. My guess is that it will be more like planning the Donner Party to last a few years simply because that next supply ship might make it but then it might not.

          Elon Musk worries about AI and killer drones but wants to go to Mars and I can’t help but think he hasn’t really thought that last bit through.

  12. The problem with this is that you think you can choose genes to get a certain outcome, but then the reality doesn’t pan out.

    One of Gregory Peck’s last movies, The Boys from Brazil, dealt with this idea. The movie was about an escaped Nazi doctor who had cloned Hitler.

  13. Humans are very flawed, and only imbeciles who believe in invisible friends would pretend that improvement to the race isn’t a worthwhile goal.

    Why it is ok, and even good, to do so for every other living thing, but not ourselves is puzzlingly illogical.

    1. Why you cam’t see the difference between humans and the rest of the living world is what is puzzlingly illogical.
      But your reference to “imbeciles who believe in invisible friends” is a big clue.

  14. Let’s all be honest here, Gattaca is the future. PERIOD. Maybe with more brain implant chips, which is the part that creeps me out more than genetic tinkering… At least genetically engineered people are just people that happen to be at the top of the distribution of traits as occur in nature anyway. Imagine a world where even the dumbest guy in the room has a 150 IQ. THAT would be a great world!

    Anyway, the fact is that shit is gonna get weird. Everybody is going to be 6’2″, pale skinned, mostly blonde hair and blue eyes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Asians kept their facial features. Why? Because all those things come up internationally as being the most desirable and beautiful features. So tall blonde Asian women with double Ds will be the norm. They’ll also have 150 IQs, if not higher!

    It’s gonna be whack. Thank god I’m already 3+ standard deviations above normal intelligence, so I’ll at least be as smart as the young whipper snappers in 50 years… I’ll just be a bit on the short side, and not blonde. LOL

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.