Is Human Gene Editing Simply Scientific Progress?

Ethical concerns about last week's CRISPR breakthrough in China are valid. But they can evolve quickly.

Chinese geneticist He Jiankui claims to have made the first gene-edited babies
Chinese geneticist He Jiankui claims to have made the first gene-edited babies
Noah Feldman

NEW YORK — It's too soon to know whether a Chinese researcher who claims to have successfully edited the genomes of newly born twins is telling the truth. But if he is, and if the girls turn out to be healthy and normal, it heralds a significant change in the scientific and ethical status of human gene editing. The outrage might not last long.

The consensus in the scientific community now is that human gene editing is medically dangerous and ethically wrong. Both of those beliefs are susceptible to changing, almost as fast as science is capable of progressing.

And, interestingly, the two main concerns about gene editing using the CRISPR-Cas 9 system are almost diametrically opposed, logically speaking.

The first worry is that CRISPR technology, while cheap and powerful, isn't reliable enough for use in humans. Specifically, the concern is that changes in one gene that has been "knocked out" and replaced with another could have unforeseen and harmful effects elsewhere in the genome.

These scientific and ethical concerns are serious.

Called "off-target" effects, such unintended modifications are rare but not unheard of in CRISPR experiments in mice. When it comes to humans, the worry goes, an intended mutation that is beneficial or even lifesaving could turn out to have serious, permanent negative effects elsewhere.

The second worry is that CRISPR editing of the human genome will work all too well. That could lead to parents seeking to have designer babies, offspring whose genomes have been edited so that they will be more athletic or more attractive or more intelligent.

The ethical concerns there range from the obvious (it seems too much like eugenics) to the more subtle (it could enhance class differences between those with access to the technology and those without).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then there's the fact that gene editing isn't restricted to that one child. CRISPR genetic mutations are passed on to the next generation, whether for good or for ill.

These scientific and ethical concerns are serious. But they can change fast.

Consider the off-target effects. This worry is based on empirical science: either there is a meaningful probability of dangerous off-target mutations, or there isn't. If children like the twins who have been reportedly modified are born and live healthy, normal lives, then scientific worries about off-target effects will begin to recede.

As an editorial in Nature Medicine pointed out last summer, all acts of sexual reproduction carry a background probability of spontaneous mutation — that's why evolution is possible. If the rate of off-target effects is lower than that of natural mutation, scientists and regulators may come to consider it to be tolerable.

That leaves the designer-babies worry — and there are a couple of reasons to predict that it, too, may fade.

Designer babies aren't a very realistic option.

To begin with, designing taller or smarter babies is not a realistic possibility in the foreseeable future. Most observable human features are associated with hundreds of genetic mutations, not just one or two. One leading study on height found that 697 genetic variants accounted for one-fifth of the difference among people. It isn't realistic to use CRISPR to knock out and replace those 697 genes to achieve a possible 20 percent gain in height.

Other examples of human variability, such as intelligence, would be even harder to change with current editing techniques. We can't even produce a consistent definition of intelligence, much less identify its genetic determinants.

As the public gradually realizes that designer babies aren't a very realistic option, the ethical worry about producing them is likely to fade.

What will remain is the strong ethical value of protecting future generations from debilitating disease. The reported Chinese human editing case was unnecessary, because there are other, simpler ways of protecting a fetus from contracting HIV from a paternal donor. But plenty of other diseases can be avoided only by genetic mutation.

If and when it becomes scientifically safe to proceed with human gene editing, the legitimate ethical concern about designer babies is likely to be outweighed by the ethical imperative to avoid disease, and to enable parents to reproduce who might otherwise not have been able to do so.

Over time, the ethical question will cease to be whether it is permissible to use gene editing to prevent disease. Instead, ethicists will be asking whether it is ethically permissible not to make interventions that would avoid human pain and suffering.

All this will take time — possibly as long as a decade, depending on how many scientists break the current norms and how well their patients do. But if the science works, expect the ethical norms to follow. Forty years ago, ethicists fretted about in vitro fertilization. Today, the practice seems ethically unproblematic or even attractive to the public in most countries.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!