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Ethicist Argues for Germline Changes

A bioethicist argues that genetically modifying infants could be justified, the BBC reports.

Researcher He Jiankui announced about a year ago that he had used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to alter the genomes of two twin girls as embryos. This revelation was broadly condemned as unethical and premature.

But drawing on a utilitarian outlook, Kevin Smith from Abertay University in Scotland argues in the journal Bioethics that there could be grounds to edit the human germline. Utilitarianism, he notes, says that ethical judgments should be evaluated by the consequences of an action, with actions that cause more happiness outweighing those that cause more suffering. Through this lens, Smith says genetically modifying the human germline could be justified if it reduces suffering. 

Additionally, Smith writes that delaying the implementation of genetically modifying the human germline could even impose a utility cost, as people would suffer in the interim. Still, to give time to deal with safety issues and fallout from He's editing attempt, Smith says "it seems prudent — and ultimately generative of the greatest amount of utility — to delay implementing [human germline genetic modification] for a modest period of time, in the order of 1-2 years."

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