New technology is available for scientists to edit genomes for healthcare and agricultural purposes, almost at will. Many of us have thought and written about genetic engineering in the abstract for decades. Now the technology is here, and it is accurate and versatile. These advances in biotechnology and genomics give new meaning and gravity to Humane Vitae and the Doctrinal Principle on “Limits to Man’s Power”!
The technique to edit genomes, CRISPR-Cas 9, can be thought of as a molecular scissor, programmed to precisely snip out harmful (or simply undesirable) DNA and replace it with beneficial DNA. The promise of CRISPR is that it will produce new treatments and cures for many debilitating diseases, a goal that is desirable and almost always moral. The technology can be used in adults, children, and embryos. At this time, CRISPR has been used in only a very small number of adults in a research study to assess safety and efficacy, and NIH funded research on embryos is vastly restricted. As Catholics and defenders of the moral status of the human embryo, research on embryos is always illicit. As scientists, genome editing research on the human embryo carries a heightened magnitude of ethical concern, since unforeseen consequences are difficult to predict and changes to embryos are passed down to future generations.
Humane Vitae calls us to “accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go.” What does that mean for us with regard to genome editing? In Genesis, God gives humans the mandate to be stewards of creation, with the limitation that humans not eat of the tree of good and evil. Therein lies the concern. CRISPR’s potential for good or harm comes at a time when there is tremendous turmoil in our culture. We lack a shared moral mooring upon which to make decisions regarding right and wrong. Markedly, success and fame are the pervasive values—usually stifling concerns about right and wrong. The Catholic Church and her teachings are the lone voices defending the value of human life in the public square. We must protect and extend those voices! As individual Catholics we should do our part by staying informed, voting appropriately for those who defend life, and praying that God will heal and protect our land. Admittedly, this is a tremendous challenge in light of the current denunciation of the Church. Yet, God’s truth presented in an approachable manner is always compelling, and since God is our Creator, science continually corroborates His plan.
By that I mean, the complexity and interdependence of the human genome make it extremely difficult to understand and even more challenging to alter safely. Thus, science itself belies the idea that the human mind, with our relatively modest understanding of genomics, could redesign aspects of human life and agriculture successfully. Ezekiel 28: 1-2 clearly speaks to the tendency of human nature toward pride of intellect and ability: “Thus says the Lord God: Because your heart is proud and you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,’ yet you are but a mortal, and no god, though you compare your mind with the mind of a god.” Our looming power to alter our genetic heritage and potentially what it means to be human, cries out for adherence to the admonition of Ezekiel and a sincere endorsement of a cautious and humble approach to genome editing. The overarching ethical and moral concern is that the unparalleled power of CRISPR presents a choice requiring the wisdom to discern when to say “yes” or “no” to this new technology, and the humility to know what is beyond the limits of our understanding to evaluate or judge.
Marilyn E. Coors, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Bioethics and Genetics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus
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