Published with permission from the Human Preservation blog, January 25, 2019, by Christopher M. Reilly — If we can edit the DNA of an embryo to potentially eliminate a genetic abnormality, “disease,” or disability, perhaps we can spare that human being from future suffering. How can any human being argue against that?… Here are ten arguments for resisting the impulse to exercise misguided compassion through genetic editing of human embryos.
The experience of suffering has been a consistent and primary phenomenon in the history of the human species.
It seems clear that human nature involves an extraordinary drive to relieve our suffering. Our bodies avoid physical and psychical pain. Our minds seek to escape despair and depression. Our personal psychologies drive us to resolve the discomfort of confusion, uncertainty, and contradiction in our identities as we grow throughout life.
Human nature also includes, when individual psychology allows it, the attitudes of empathy and sympathy toward others. These attitudes drive us toward compassion and culminate – in some individuals at particular times – in charitable action.
It is therefore not surprising that the usual endorsements of genetic editing (or “enhancement”) of new human embryos emphasize compassion for the new, developing human beings. If we can edit the DNA of an embryo to potentially eliminate a genetic abnormality, “disease”, or disability, perhaps we can spare that human being from future suffering.
How can any human being argue against that?
Here are ten arguments for resisting the impulse to exercise misguided compassion through genetic editing of human embryos:
First, although the new technology of CRISPR allows researchers to more accurately identify genes and to edit those genes in the DNA of an embryo, the genetic and environmental factors in removing supposedly “unwanted” characteristics are usually more complex than we can fully understand. It may be only a fantasy that researchers will find safe and predictable therapies for most maladies that can cause suffering. Commercial gene editing companies will probably make exaggerated and therefore unsafe claims about their abilities.
Second, it is wildly unrealistic to believe that removing a genetic source of pain, incapacity, or discrimination will protect an individual human embryo from future suffering. Life is unpredictable and includes a nearly infinite set of possibilities for suffering.
Third, the potential for suffering due to many of the abnormalities that are targets of genetic testing and genetic editing is usually over-estimated. Millions of persons with disabilities and genetic abnormalities live happy lives. Genetic testing does not always predict the future physical characteristics of a person.
Fourth, genetic editing at this time goes hand-in-hand with in vitro fertilization (IVF) if the goal is to produce a born child. IVF nearly always involves conceiving multiple embryos, and the embryos that are not chosen for genetic editing and birth are either destroyed, experimented upon, or frozen. Yet if compassion is warranted for one human embryo, it certainly must be warranted for all of the embryos. IVF with multiple embryos is a process of torture and death for millions of human embryos every year.
Fifth, the previous argument helps to illustrate that genetic editing of a human embryo is not really motivated by compassion for that embryo, but compassion for the imagined future child and adult that the embryo develops into. Yet we generally do not tolerate more than a minimum amount of risk and suffering in medical procedures performed on a born child in order to enhance the living conditions of the future adult, because the less developed child is also valuable as a human being. Why then is it morally permissible to do this to the less developed, yet undeniably human embryo? Suffering comes in many forms other than nerve pain, so is it unrealistic to assume that the genetically edited embryo does not suffer and face great risk during that radical procedure.
Sixth, suffering and struggle are essential characteristics of human nature. Yes, we are driven to overcome suffering, and there is some fulfillment of our human nature when we do so. Suffering, however, also provides the context in which human beings learn to assess challenges and build spiritual and psychological strength in struggling against them. Without such growth in fulfillment of our human nature, we have no story, no character, no virtue, no meaning in life.
Seventh, suffering is a crucial prompt to gratitude for blessings in our lives. Psychologists, religious leaders, and others have observed repeatedly that the experience of gratitude is crucial for true, persistent joy in life.
Eighth, the suffering of individuals is the context for empathy and compassion. More importantly, it is the context of love, in which one human being looks into the eyes of another person, sees themselves as a humble and imperfect yet dignified person in the reflection of the other’s eyes, and shares a relationship of active kindness, solidarity, or even intimacy. Is there any greater joy?
Ninth, as Christians have taught for 2,000 years, suffering brings a person closer to God. Without suffering, we would not be driven to acknowledge God in our pride, we would not converse with God over the meaning of evil and existence, and we would not bring the light of God into our relationships of love with others. What meaning in life, and what dignity of the individual, can survive without moving closer to God?
Tenth, the unpredictability and false sense of control in genetic editing runs the high risk of altering future generations of human beings beyond all recognition when the genetically edited persons reproduce. An expanding group of people called transhumanists express their hatred of human nature by actively campaigning for an end to human characteristics through genetic editing and artificial intelligence technologies. These people hold high positions in transformative companies like Google. They are joined by genetic researchers guided only by fame and profit. Human nature will only survive if we take assertive and persuasive action to protect it.
In sum, we are driven as individuals to avoid and reduce suffering in ourselves and others. Yet we are also driven, indeed called, to a greater joy that develops through the fulfillment of our entire human nature. Suffering is the context for that joy, and our one-dimensional, nearly futile emphasis on reducing suffering through radical genetic alterations of a human embryo can be a tragic mistake.
Christopher M Reilly authors the blog, Human Preservation, from which this article originates. He holds a Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs, with further graduate study in public policy, political economy, and bioethics. He lives in the Washington, DC region.