BIOETHICS DRAMA IN REAL LIFE

Jan 9, 2020

Jean Baric Parker, D.BE

“Covert Human Experimentation”

“Scorching International Condemnation”

“Sequestered Researcher under Government Surveillance”

“Rogue Scientist Fired, Fined, Jailed”

These captions could well highlight the latest plot sequence in a Netflix action movie. Instead, they describe real-life events which have transpired recently on the international stage of human genetic engineering.

In November 2018, Chinese researcher, Dr. He Jiankui [1], from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, stunned an international gathering [2] of scientists when he announced that he had altered the DNA of twin embryos to make them resistant to developing HIV – a disease their father had acquired. Dr. He performed this procedure soon after fertilizing their mother's eggs with their father’s sperm using in vitro fertilization (IVF). The babies were reportedly born healthy, although recent evidence points to likely deficiencies in the genetic editing. (Delgado, 2019) [3]

Scientists immediately condemned Dr. He’s work, citing that the relatively new CRISPR-cas9 gene-editing tool he used was unsafe in humans, that standard research guidelines were disregarded, and that Dr. He ignored international consensus against human germline (heritable) genome editing [4].

Consequently, Dr. He’s teaching and research activities were terminated [5]. The prestigious Nature and JAMA journals refused to publish his research, and the Chinese government sentenced him to three years in prison and fined him $430,000.

The Catholic ‘Screenplay’ Would Have Played Out Differently...

Had Dr. He considered his actions through the lens of Church teaching, the outcome would have been quite different, and the storyline would not have included directing innocent human lives towards an uncertain and potentially disastrous fate.

His experiments would have been deemed illicit if evaluated in light of core Church values and teachings related to human life, sexuality, and good research practices, including the:

  • Inherent dignity and right to life owed to all human beings from conception onward [6]
  • Inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of intercourse [7]
  • Grave moral issues associated with IVF, as expressed in Dignitas Personae [8], including an embryo mortality rate of 85-98% [9]
  • Rejection of harm-inducing experimentation on live human embryos [10]
  • Rejection of genetic research on human embryos [11]
  • Rejection of non-medically necessary genetic ‘enhancements’ in humans [12]

If Dr. He had embraced these life-affirming Catholic tenets, he would still be a respected researcher in good standing, and two innocent children would not be facing a potentially tragic drama in their very-real, genetically-altered lives.

Footnotes:
[1] Mark Schiefelbein, Associated Press, “Chinese Researcher Claims Birth of First Gene-Edited Babies — Twin Girls,” STAT News.com, November 25, 2018
[2] Sharon Begley, “Claim of CRISPR’d Baby Girls Stuns Genome Editing Summit,” STAT News.com, November 26, 2018
[3] Antonio Regalado, “China’s CRISPR Babies: Read Exclusive Excerpts from the Unseen Original Research,” Technology Review.com, December 3, 2019
[4] Gina Kolata and Pam Belluck, “Why Are Scientists So Upset About the First Crispr Babies?” New York Times.com, December 5, 2018
[5] Southern University of Science and Technology Public Statement, News SUSTech, January 21, 2019
[6] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, 1
[7] Pope St. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 12
[8] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae, 14-17
[9] USCCB, “In Vitro Fertilization: The Human Cost,” July 10, 2015
[10] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, 4; USCCB, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, 6th edition, #51
[11] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae, 24-27
[12] Ibid, 27

Dr. Jean Baric Parker is one of St. Bernard’s newest Adjunct Faculty members, teaching “Catholic Bioethics: A Matter of Life and Death.” She recently earned a Doctorate Degree in Bioethics from Loyola University at Chicago where she focused on beginning-of-life bioethical issues and research ethics. Dr. Baric Parker also serves on Ethics Committees of the Catholic Medical Association and the Empire State Stem Cell Board, and is on the Linacre Quarterly Editorial Advisory Board. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, playing cut-throat scrabble, power walking, and doing anything with her 4 (mostly) grown children and husband, Kevin.