Human civilization has taken an important turn with the publication of a new report by the Nuffield Council, the semi-official bioethics agency of the United Kingdom. The document, two years in preparation, gives the go-ahead to genetically engineer human beings at the embryonic stages of development. The report stated: “There is potential for heritable genome editing interventions to be used at some point in the future in assisted human reproduction, as a means for people to secure certain characteristics in their children.” If history is a guide, the U.S. will not lag far behind the U.K. in following this dangerous path.
The U.K. pioneered human genetic engineering by approving, earlier this year, a technique to construct embryos using parts of the eggs of two different women, along with a man’s sperm, to create “three-person embryos.” Though deceptively promoted as “mitochondrial transfer,” the procedure really involves transferring around 20 thousand genes from a woman with impaired mitochondria into another woman’s egg. The accurate “three-person” designation was only widely used in the scientific literature after the procedure became legal. Similar misrepresentations of the technicalities are contained in the Nuffield recommendations.
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, recounted the dire social consequences of purposefully fashioning humans with different biological endowments. His method of choice was in vitro fertilization, first demonstrated in animals in the 1930s, but only performed successfully in humans with the birth of Louise Brown (also in the U.K.) in 1978. By putting certain enriching or toxic substances in the culture medium, “superior” or “inferior” human specimens could be produced, according to society’s needs.
Now, due to the revolution in molecular genetics that has taken place since Huxley’s time, would-be embryo improvers have at their disposal the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA manipulation system. Though this technique has been touted for its accuracy, an article published in the journal Nature Biotechnology the same day as the Nuffield report bore the title ”Repair of double-stranded breaks induced by CRISPR-Cas9 leads to large deletions and complex rearrangements.” Notwithstanding this, and earlier indications along the same lines, the Nuffield Council is optimistic that gene engineers will eventually have the technical means to do what they intend, that is make taller, smarter and more beautiful people.
In this view,