CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 12 January 2019

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Genetic editing and the matter of the human condition

The birth of the world’s first genetically edited twin babies, Lulu and Nana, in China—claimed by scientist, He Jiankui, during an address at the Second Summit on Human Genome Editing held in Hong Kong in November—continues to stir debate amid profound ethical and spiritual implications (Sunday Examiner, December 9).
 
This includes conflicting views on the desirability or otherwise of a future with so called superhumans bred with disease resistance and other perceived advantages.
 
One fear is that it would overwhelmingly only be available to the rich and influential. The poor, meanwhile, would continue to be subject to the whims of nature, including congenital defects and susceptibility to maladies.
 
The twins were said to have had their genes altered, among other things, to make them resistant to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
 
He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, apologised for what he said was an earlier “leak” revealing his experimentation. The disclosure sparked an international furore. 
 
However, Father Joseph Tham, a professor in the school of bioethics at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, said he was not surprised by the news as such a case of genetic editing was going to happen sooner or later.
 
The priest, who attended the human genome editing summit and heard He’s address, pointed out that the earlier development of test-tube baby technology was the beginning of the “materialisation” of the human embryo. In the fields of experimentation and research, it was natural to try to perfect embryos, he noted.
 
“Just like the iPhone, there are always new models launched in the market, claiming that the new model is better than the old one,” Father Tham said.
 
“This is the tendency of human beings and the inevitable development of technology. Technology always has such a tendency and it is also an ideal for scientists—unceasingly surpassing the past,” Father Tham said.
 
Ways are being sought to make people healthier and to prolong life, including through organ regeneration and disease resistance, he said. 
 
There is great potential to change the human condition through a variety of interventions, genetic modification being one of them.
 
“What is even more irresistible is that when one day these technologies become safe and effective for everyone to use, they will be popular,” Father Tham said, warning, however, that many matters of concern will arise in the form of ethical issues.
 
For example, what happens to the embryo as an experimental product after it has been modified.
 
“What are the consequences?” he asked. “Can it be successful? Is it safe? No one knows and there is no answer.”
 
He also also stressed that the Catholic Church’s position is that embryos should not be used as an “experimental product.”
 
In his posthumous book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, the late British physicist, Stephen Hawking, outlined his various fears about the future of mankind.
 
One matter of deep concern for Hawking was that wealthy people would use the genetic modification technology to improve their own genes and those of their children, creating smarter superhumans with a longer life expectancy.
 
Father Tham said there was cause to consider whether or not it is a good thing to aspire to create such superhumans and raised the spectre of some individuals, while being very intelligent, physically attractive and powerful, turning out to be “a bad guy.”
 
He asked, “How could we deal with him? That is the problem.”
 
The priest added, “Humans should pursue a more perfect and better life, but is it just limited to physical and material perfection? Should we think more about our spiritual and virtuous perfection?”
 
A person with physical disabilities or deficiencies could be perfect because of inner goodness and a saint from the spiritual point of view, Father Tham said, suggesting success in life can follow setbacks and failures.
 
He noted that the genetic editing of the twin babies, Lulu and Nana, had been condemned by many scientists at the Hong Kong summit, but observed that they had only focused on the fact that the result announcement was too early as the technology is still very immature and the consequences unknown.
 
The other scientists worried that the case of the twins would hinder the research and development of genetic technologies in the future.
 
However, the blame was being apportioned just from a secular perspective, rather than from an ethical stance.
 
At present, Britain, the United States and China do not have a blanket ban on researching human genetic modification technologies using embryos.
 
However, Father Tham believes that, given the way He has been criticized, there remains scope for genetic editing to be considered safe and effective.
 
“Technology is like a knife which can help people or hurt people,” he said. “It depends on whether it can be used ethically.”