A Chinese scientist caused an international scandal late last year when he edited the genes of a pair of unborn twins, in what became known as the CRISPR scandal.
But another scientist in New York is doing something quite similar, without incurring the international backlash. His research is rife with ethical concerns and has the potential to unleash a dystopian future on the world.
Dieter Egli, a scientist based at Columbia University, is creating human embryos, editing their genome (that is, their DNA sequence), and then destroying them within 24 hours.
Destroying the embryos is key. Egli distinguishes his research from that of the condemned Chinese scientist involved in the CRISPR scandal because he has not brought any modified embryos to term.
“We can’t just do the editing and then hope everything goes right and implant that into a womb. That’s not responsible,” Egli told NPR.
But this is pure sophistry. Why else experiment with gene editing if not to ultimately bring gene-edited babies to term? Presumably, as his research proceeds, he will destroy embryos at later phases of development, and then eventually bring some to term as genetically-edited children.
This raises a host of questions not just about killing the unborn, but about what human beings are in the first place.
Human beings are not products to be created and destroyed on a whim. They are not inanimate objects to be disposed with at any time, and treating them as such is dangerous and wrong. The human beings that Egli has carelessly produced and killed have the potential to grow into thriving adults, just like the rest of us.
If scientists can treat human beings like lab rats, what does that say about our overall attitude toward human life? Are we really more concerned about the potential dangers of genetically modified food than we are about genetically modified human beings?
This line of research poses additional practical problems. Changes made to the human genome would be passed down to future generations through individuals’ germ lines. We have no idea what kinds of complications that could create in the long term.
Egli and others claim this technology will be used to find cures to genetic diseases. But it could also easily be weaponized in the wrong hands. Designer babies could be used as super soldiers—a possibility that China is reportedly already exploring—and be used as a tool for eugenics.
This dystopian future is at fundamental odds with the natural, normal, healthy context for human life. The CRISPR procedure, like other assisted reproductive technologies, removes reproduction from its proper context and places it in a petri dish.
Alienating children from their mothers and fathers has negative consequences on our entire society. Look no further than the stories of donor children and surrogates to see how the third-party reproduction industry destroys natural familial bonds.
Where children are concerned, we should put their interests first.
If we treat human life like it is a matter of technical mastery and control, we no longer treat it like a precious gift that merits our respect. This will inevitably have a ripple effect in other aspects of our lives: how we treat the very young and very old, the sick, the disabled, and so forth.
As the recent spotlight on Columbia University reveals, human experimentation is not the stuff of science fiction. It is happening right here, right now.
There is no “responsible” way to conduct this research. It is profoundly unethical and extremely dangerous.
The intentional destruction of human life ought to be banned. We must take action immediately to prevent further harm.
Monica Burke is a research assistant in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.