In 1519, Captain Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs and claimed Mexico for Spain. Legend reports that he ordered all the ships burned, so that his men would have to conquer or die trying. In reality, he merely scuttled the ships, making them unusable, but “burning the ships” has become a vivid metaphor to express total commitment to a cause.
Just two years ago last May, Chinese researchers reported the first use of a novel new gene editing technology, called CRISPR, on human embryos. The scientific and ethical world reacted with horror and dismay. “Germline engineering” of human beings, with genetic changes that could be passed on to future generations, has always been morally off-limits.
An international conference in December, 2016 proposed a worldwide moratorium on the use of CRISPR in human embryos. Yet within months, gene editing experiments began in the U.K. without much comment or apology. And just last week, similar experiments began at Oregon Health and Science University.
Here are a few of the many reasons why this is an ethically worrisome trend:
1. Experimenting on human embryos violates the sanctity of human life, period.
2. There is a ban in the U.S. on implanting CRISPR-edited embryos, but the temptation to implant and gestate them will be irresistible. This will first be done in other countries, debated and “cautiously” permitted here, and then the floodgates will open.
3. The goal is the cure of genetic diseases, but the results are completely unpredictable with our present level of knowledge. Germline therapies alter the entire genome of an afflicted individual, including reproductive cells. These changes will affect not only that person, but all subsequent generations.
4. All this won’t stop with the cure of diseases, as the new technology will quickly give rise to attempts at true enhancement: the altering (for better or worse) of human nature itself, possibly violating the image of God within each of us.
5. Informed consent, of course, is a major concern, since there is no way to get consent from future generations for the risks they will incur.
Yet despite the many risks, it seems that our scientists are willing, if not recklessly eager, to explore this new frontier. Like Cortés, their commitment is total, not to be distracted by bothersome ethical considerations.
And the ships are burning.