In an early public skirmish in what may well become a long battle over ethical questions that are at the core of human biology, medicine, and research, four intellectuals gathered on a stage in New York City last night to debate whether or not there should be a ban on the use of genetic engineering to improve human babies.
Hosted by Intelligence Squared US, the debate took up whether or not there should be an outright ban on all genetic engineering for enhancing babies, with one team charged with arguing that such engineering is unethical, dangerous, and immoral, and should be banned, and the other side saying that it isn't any of these things, and that a ban would be damaging to science and medicine.
Arguing in favor of a ban were Tufts University Professor and Chair of the Council for Responsible Genetics Sheldon Krimsky and Robert Winston, a professor at Imperial College, London, and a member of the House of Lords, and they said the complexity of the human genome can lead to genetic engineering mistakes and errors and yield unknown consequences, that fetuses and zygotes are unable to consent, and that there may be other options for treating genetic diseases or for prospective parents.
They also argued that abuse of genetic technologies could lead to a quest for perfection through the engineering of 'designer babies' and starting a slippery slope that may bring about eugenics programs like those pursued by Hitler and those explored in the film Gattaca.
Opposing a ban, Duke University Law Professor Nita Farahany and Princeton University Professor Lee Silver held that a ban on genetic engineering would be immoral because it would deny people access to treatments for a range of genetic diseases that cause tremendous pain and suffering. If there are examples where genetic engineering could save lives, or make sick babies healthy, then such a ban would be an untenable policy, they said.
Farahany said that if such a ban were enacted in the US, it would be left behind other parts of the world, where Americans would travel to have genetic treatments and where groundbreaking research would be conducted, and that it could eventually lead to back-alley operations where people seek out the banned treatments so they can have healthy babies.
Silver argued that genetic engineering is not a transgression against nature, because Mother Nature has not provided humans with a perfect genome, does not care one whit about the health of our children, and has essentially "waged all-out war" on children in part by making all people hosts to at least a hundred risk variants for genetic diseases.
Farahany, who serves on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, also stressed that reproductive decisions are private matters and that it would be far better to use public policy to set the ethical lines that may or may not be crossed by doctors or scientists than to enact a ban.
Silver waved off the concerns about the potential abuses of genetic engineering by pointing out that pharmaceutical drugs are abused all the time and they are not banned.
Much of the debate centered on the process of mitochondrial transfer, which is already being used.
"It is safe. It works. It eliminates massive childhood suffering," Farahany said.
"Nita, just bear in mind that the children who were born of mitochondrial transfer are still children, and the real problem, of course, is what happens to them when they are adults. We don't know," Winston replied.
"Well, happily they will get to become adults. They won't become adults without this option," Farahany responded.
Generalized uncertainties about the possible impacts of genetic engineering treatments simply should not be an argument for banning them, she said.
"I have news for you," Farahany added. "Every single time we decide to reproduce there is uncertainty. We have no idea how this unique combination of individuals is going to result. And we certainly aren't going to say that we are going to ban natural reproduction."