fbpx
Articles

How should Christians think about CRISPR and gene-edited babies?

/
December 6, 2018

Humanity entered a new era this past week. At the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing held in Hong Kong (Nov. 27-29, 2018), which was organized “to try to reach a global consensus on whether, how and when it might be permissible to create children from genetically altered human embryos,” Dr. He Jiankui, a Chinese biomedical researcher, stunned the international scientific community when he claimed to have already used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the genome (the genetic material of an organism) of at least two human embryos.

These two embryos were then implanted into a woman’s uterus and have subsequently resulted in the birth of twin girls at an unspecified date “a few weeks ago.” Questions are still swirling regarding exactly how Jiankui edited the twins’ genomes. Nonetheless, by and large, the scientific community has denounced the actions of Jiankui. This is captured well by the condemnatory statement of Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the US National Institutes of Health:

This work represents a deeply disturbing willingness by [Dr. Jiankui] and his team to flout international ethical norms. The project was largely carried out in secret, the medical necessity for inactivation of CCR5 in these infants is utterly unconvincing, the informed consent process appears highly questionable, and the possibility of damaging off-target effects has not been satisfactorily explored. It is profoundly unfortunate that the first apparent application of this powerful technique to the human germline has been carried out so irresponsibly.”

International ethical norms were indeed trampled, as Collins rightly recognizes. Criticism has mainly revolved around the “experimental” manner in which Jiankui appears to have approached the issue, creating unacceptable risks for a medical purpose that is questionable.

What is genome editing?

Genome editing (or simply “gene editing”) is the ability, through the use of advanced technology, to change an organism’s DNA. In genome editing, genetic material can be added, deleted, or altered at precise locations. One particular method for genome editing is CRISPR-Cas9, which is a relatively recent development that has generated a lot of excitement due to its lower cost, efficiency, and accuracy over other pre-existing editing technologies.

Genome editing holds a lot of promise for the prevention and treatment of human disease. Most research with CRISPR-Cas9 aims to understand diseases in cells animals, whereas the safe and effective use in humans is still being studied. It is the editing of the human genome which raises many of the ethical concerns with this technology.  

Why is this of concern?

The actions of Jiankui are of concern for a number of reasons. By taking such a monumental step in a secretive manner, without precedent, and with much unease as to the morality of the procedure, Jiankui demonstrated tremendous recklessness. Two main ethical concerns relate to genome editing, and this story raises red flags for both.

First, there is the fear that embryos, which Christians would consider human beings, are simply created for the purpose of experimentation. This seems to be the case here, as there is serious doubt as to the necessity for the procedure that Dr. Jiankui conducted. The CCR5 receptor that Jiankui claims to have inactivated supposedly will prevent the children from ever contracting HIV, which the biological father is infected with.

Yet, the necessity of such an intervention is highly questionable. Alta Charo, a U.S. bioethicist who helped organize the summit, stated that Jiankui’s genome editing was “misguided, premature, unnecessary and largely useless,” and, “The children were already at virtually no risk of contracting HIV, because it was the father and not the mother who was infected.” Hence, Jiankui’s experimentation exposed two healthy, normal embryos to unnecessary risk.

A second main area of concern for gene editing is its purpose, or, why is it being done? Reasons may be preventive, therapeutic, or for enhancement. The case at hand falls under the first category of being done for preventive purposes. Yet, we still run into the same question as above about whether such an intervention was actually medically necessary, as, in the case of using genome editing to prevent HIV, there is no unmet medical need that is being addressed.

What is more, as this is new territory for science, there is no precedent for how such genome editing could affect these children. Research into human genome editing is decades from learning how such technology could impact individuals as well as future generations and the human gene pool if such technology is used on reproductive cells.

Should all genetic editing be opposed by Christians?

I believe the answer here to be “no,” though there is room to disagree. Genome editing that seeks to eradicate disease and increase human flourishing has merits and can be thought of in similar terms to other pharmaceutical and biotechnological interventions. However, the means of testing such interventions must be carefully established and only be proceeded with caution.

It seems that nongermline genome editing in adults who can provide informed consent can be done in a manner that is ethical and may bear similar risks as participating in clinical trials. In contrast, in regards to genetic editing of embryos who cannot provide informed consent and weigh the risks and benefits of procedure, we are called to love them and view as fellow image-bearers of God regardless of their utility or any infirmity they may have.

This conversation has to begin from a position that sees children as a gift from the Lord (Psa. 127:3-5), not as a project on which to run experiments with an unknown outcome under suspect motives and unnecessity. This, along with fears that such technology can easily devolve into eugenics and designer babies, should give us additional hesitation to perform such procedures on human embryos.

Daniel J. Hurst

Daniel J. Hurst is director of Medical Professionalism, Ethics, and Humanities and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey. He was previously on the faculty at UAB where he was involved in the xenotransplantation program performing studies on … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24