Genetic editing: Stranger than fiction

We’ve all heard the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, right?

Well, the truth is also apparently becoming even stranger–as evidenced by the recent news that, for the first time here in the United States, a human embryo has had its DNA “edited”.

The controversial study utilized eggs from twelve healthy women, and the sperm from one man (a carrier of a gene which causes a heritable heart defect), to produce “many tens” of embryos whose targeted genes were then essentially and successfully “clipped”.

Experts say that it is, for now anyway, just “research.” The editing has reportedly only been performed on embryos that were allowed to grow for just a few days, and which were never destined for the womb anyhow. Their ultimate goal of course is to be able to correct various genes that cause disease in embryos which will go on to be implanted in a mother’s uterus, via in-vitro fertilization.

As one would expect, there are a number of people both within and without the scientific community voicing concern over the ethical ramifications of “correcting” genes, particularly because the gene in question is of a type that will be passed down from generation to generation. These voices of caution and dissent seem most concerned with the “designer baby” phenomenon — what will it mean for our society if we have the ability to customize a person’s genetic makeup? Will we end up with greater social inequality, as a culture, if wealthy parents are able to pursue biologically superior children?

Basically, the “correcting” of genes is enough to make a lot of folks uncomfortable. People seem to sense, on some level, that there is something fundamentally “off” about creating, and then editing the genes of, an embryo. It not only smacks of “playing God” (whether they actually believe in God or not), but also of crossing some invisible yet sacred boundary that they perhaps cannot articulate, but know is there just the same.

The boundary, of course, is life.

But what even the opponent of genetic editing may not realize is that an embryo is a person. A human being! Once fertilization occurs, life has begun, and this small person may (given time, health, and the proper environment) eventually grow to do things like cannon-ball into a swimming pool, or graduate from college. Of course, we can’t know exactly what this new life will hold but we know — and this is what matters most — that it is, indeed, a life. Made in the image and likeness of a loving, personal, and holy God.

Thus the problem with creating and using embryos for research — and the problem with creating embryos outside of the conjugal act, in the first place. Eliminating disease and addressing the problem of infertility with IVF may seem good things on the surface, but we Catholics must not condone or resort to methods which violate God’s wise and loving plan for men, women, and children. And when we see the medical and scientific communities touting these morally troublesome solutions, we must be sure to know, and then combat them with, the truth.

In 1995, Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangeliium Vitae that “Every individual…is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart.” This is why, as Catholics, we must not only embrace God’s will for each of us respectively, when it comes to human dignity and life, but we must also take care to proclaim this reality to friends, neighbors, and parishioners, who may not be aware. This is part of the Church’s mission, to share the good news of Jesus Christ in upholding the dignity of the human person.

Our beloved former pope goes on to firmly and succinctly address the problems with IVF (and the creation and destruction of embryos), telling us that it “reduces human life to the level of simple “biological material” to be freely disposed of.” Later, he warns that when God is forgotten in a culture, man “no longer considers life as a splendid gift of God, something “sacred” entrusted to his responsibility and thus also to his loving care and “veneration”. Life itself becomes a mere “thing”, which man claims as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control and manipulation.”

The reality is that embryonic research is probably (read: unfortunately!) not going away anytime soon. A hardened world that sees human persons as things to be used and then discarded, all in the name of progress, is not likely to embrace a life-affirming ethos. That being said, we can certainly educate ourselves on both the modern issues and the timeless truths which comprise our Catholic faith, in order to speak to these problems with precision and charity. We must live out our vocations with generosity, care for the vulnerable and sick among us, and speak up for those who have no voice. It is the only way we will, as Saint Pope John Paul II so beautifully wrote, “learn…to revere life, to love it, and to foster it.”

COMING UP: How does the Catholic Church resolve new bioethical questions?

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A number of years ago, I participated in a debate at Harvard on embryonic stem cell research which also included a Jewish rabbi, an Episcopalian clergyman, and a Muslim imam. The debate went smoothly and cordially, although I was the only voice in the group who defended the human rights of individuals who happen still to be embryos. After the debate, the Episcopalian clergyman pulled me aside and told me how he thought Catholics should consider themselves fortunate to have such an authoritative reference point in the Church and the Vatican, particularly when it comes to resolving new bioethical questions. With surprising candor, he shared how he had sat on various committees with others from his own faith tradition where they had tried to sort through the ethics of embryonic stem cells, and he lamented, “we just ended up discussing feelings and opinions, without any good way to arrive at conclusions.”

Many people, indeed, appreciate that the Catholic Church holds firm and well-defined positions on moral questions, even if they may remain unsure about how or why the Church actually arrives at those positions, especially when it comes to unpacking new scientific developments like embryonic stem cell research.

So how does the Church arrive at its positions on bioethics? For one thing, it takes its time, and doesn’t jump to conclusions even in the face of media pressure for quick sound bites and rapid-fire news stories.

I once had a discussion with a journalist for a major newspaper about the ethics of human-animal chimeras. He mentioned that a leading researcher working on chimeras had met the pope and afterwards implied that the pope had given his blessing to the project. I reminded him that it’s quite common for the pope to offer general encouragement and blessings to those he meets, though that wouldn’t be the same thing as sanctioning new and morally controversial techniques in the biosciences. As a rule, the Catholic Church does not address important bioethical questions that way, through chance encounters with the pope as you are strolling through the hallways of the Vatican.

Instead, the Church may reflect for months, years, or even decades, to identify important considerations and guiding principles when new moral dilemmas arise in the biosciences. Even with this slow and deliberative process, I think it’s fair to say that the Church generally stays ahead of the curve. By the time of the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996, for example, the Catholic Church had already been reflecting on the question of human cloning for many years, and concluded, nine years prior to Dolly, that human cloning would be morally unacceptable in an important document called Donum Vitae (On the Gift of Life).

This same document also identified key moral problems with doing human embryonic stem cell research eleven years before it was even possible to destructively obtain those cells from human embryos. When the first test tube baby was born in 1978, the serious moral concerns raised by the procedure had already been spelled out twenty-two years earlier, by Pope Pius XII, in his 1956 Allocution to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Human Sterility wherein he concluded: “As regards experiments of human artificial fecundation ‘in vitro,’ let it be sufficient to observe that they must be rejected as immoral and absolutely unlawful.”

Whenever definitive conclusions about medical ethics are reached or otherwise clarified by the Church, they are normally promulgated through official Church documents, like papal encyclicals and addresses, or, with the approval of the pope, documents and commentaries from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF — the Vatican office responsible for preserving and interpreting Catholic doctrine), or other congregations, councils or dicasteries of the Church.

Even today, certain bioethical controversies remain under active discussion within the Church, such as the question of whether it would be allowable to “adopt” abandoned frozen embryos by implanting and gestating them in volunteer mothers. While a 2007 CDF document expressed some reservations and concerns about the proposal, debate continues inside and outside the Vatican.

New medical discoveries and technological developments challenge us to careful moral reflection and discernment. These scientific developments can either be an opportunity for genuine human advancement or can lead to activities and policies that undermine human dignity. The U.S. Bishops in a recent document summed it up this way: “In consultation with medical professionals, church leaders review these developments, judge them according to the principles of right reason and the ultimate standard of revealed truth, and offer authoritative teaching and guidance about the moral and pastoral responsibilities entailed by the Christian faith. While the Church cannot furnish a ready answer to every moral dilemma, there are many questions about which she provides normative guidance and direction.”

Featured image by Erick rumualdo bustos ortega – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28900742