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Gene editing could lead to eugenics, ethicist warns

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A Catholic research institute has described the “gene editing” of human embryos at a US university as “the essence of eugenics,” adding that the study “raises serious ethical concerns”.

Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University used a gene editing tool called Crispr-Cas9 to remove a genetic mutation that causes sudden heart failure, the first reported success in gene editing outside of China.

Dr David Albert Jones, director at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, England, said: “The whole rationale for this experiment is to take a step towards genetic modification as an assisted reproductive technology.”

Dr Jones released the statement after Nature, an international science journal, reported the researchers’ findings on 2 August, pointing to ethical concerns in the process and aims of gene editing research.

“Women are being encouraged by financial inducements to part with their reproductive potential,” Dr Jones said, highlighted the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome for participants in the project.

Dr Jones also addressed the overall ambitions for advocates of gene editing.

“The embryo is conceived with the intention that it will be modified. Hence, whichever method is used the aim is the same: to produce a modified embryo.

“This aim is the essence of eugenics: not to make people better but to make ‘better’ people.”

Dr Jones added: “Historic examples, not only in Germany but in Sweden and in the United States show vividly how easily programmes for the eradication of defects in the human stock can undermine principles of equality, solidarity and respect for people with heritable conditions.”

“Eugenics involves not only scientific experimentation but social experimentation and we have seen the results of such experiments. They do not end well.”

The United States does not allow government funding for research involving human embryos, but the work is not illegal if it is funded by private donors.

In February, a report on gene editing by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) called the procedure “highly contentious”.

“The technology would therefore cross a line many have viewed as ethically inviolable,” the NAS report stated.