The slippery slope toward a possible future of designer babies appears to be slipperier, after the country’s premier science organization endorsed on Tuesday the modification of human embryos to create genetic traits that can be passed down to future generations.
"This type of human gene editing has long been seen as an ethical minefield,” says The New York Times. "Researchers fear that the techniques used to prevent genetic diseases might also be used to enhance intelligence, for example, or to create people physically suited to particular tasks, like serving as soldiers.”
The endorsement covers only changes designed to prevent babies from acquiring genes known to cause “serious diseases and disability,” and only when there is no “reasonable alternative.”
But opponents of human germ line editing fear an inevitable push to engineer traits, maybe creating an eventual dystopian social divide between people who can afford enhancements and people who can't.
Genome editing already is being planned for use in clinical trials of people to correct diseases caused by a single gene mutation, such as sickle cell disease. These therapies affect only the patient.
The concern is about use of the technology in human reproductive cells or early embryos because the changes would be passed along to offspring.
The decision of the committee of experts put together by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine comes in response to milestones in the development of the powerful gene-editing tool called Crispr-Cas9. The tool enables researchers to snip, insert and delete genetic material with increasing precision.
Also driving the committee was the likelihood that the new technology will be adopted in countries like China, where some pioneering research on editing human embryos — without the intent to gestate them — already has taken place.