The ethics of gene editing

A potentially ground-breaking independent report from a UK ethics body has given a tentative blessing to genetically altering unborn babies’ genes.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a UK-based independent charitable body that advises policy makers on bioethics, said that changing the DNA of a human embryo could be “morally permissible” if it was in the future child’s interests.

“It is our view that genome editing is not morally unacceptable in itself,” said Karen Yeung, chair of the Nuffield working group and professor of law, ethics and informatics at the University of Birmingham. “There is no reason to rule it out in principle.”

In theory, parents could edit inherited diseases or a predisposition to cancer from their unborn child.

The report does not call for a change in UK law to permit genetically altered babies – the procedure is currently outlawed - but instead urges research into the safety and effectiveness of the approach, its societal impact, and a widespread debate of its implications. It said the impact on society must also be at the heart of any decision to ensure a “responsible way forward.”

Unsurprisingly given such sensitive subject, the report has drawn criticism from many quarters, who warn against the negative repercussions of a genetically modified future. Some readers may be familiar with a 1990s sci-fi film, Gattaca, which tackles and highlights many of the issues raised by the Nuffield report. That future is a lot closer now.

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