Surprise – The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

(COMMENTARY) Newsroom story conferences are impossibly clogged with items in the Donald Trump Era.

This month everybody is sifting through everything in order to figure out the Top Ten events of 2018. The Religion Guy proposes that, without question, first place belongs not to political or economic eruptions but scientists’ onrushing effort to “play God” and re-engineer the human species through genetics.

With all the fear-mongering about animal or vegetable GMOs and “Frankenfood,” how shall we now cope with the similar and serious specter of creating human “designer babies” with desired traits?

Alas, the Guy has seen precious little media input from organized religion and urges reporters to bring those viewpoints to the center of this developing public debate.

The news: He Jiankui, a U.S.-trained biological researcher in China, says he has successfully altered the genes of newly born twins, with a third such birth expected soon. The claim has not been verified through the normal academic reporting process, much to the distress of fellow researchers, Chinese officialdom and the university and hospital where He works.

However, his background makes the claim plausible. There were important advances in such work during 2017. If He’s claim falls through, scientific success elsewhere, with the moral quandaries that result, appears inevitable. If it can be done, some scientists somewhere will do it, and self-regulation by science or government restrictions will be difficult to achieve.

The headline on a New York Times dispatch out of Beijing put matters bluntly: “In China, Sacrificing Ethics for Scientific Glory.” There were immediate hostile reactions from scientists. For one, Francis Collins, head of America’s National Institutes of Health (and a devout evangelical), spoke of “epic scientific misadventures” that will sully valid work on genetic diseases by provoking “outrage, fear, and disgust.”

CRISPR sounds like some newfangled kitchen gadget hawked as a Christmas gift on late-night TV. (“But wait!!”). However, it’s the acronym for a new tool for editing genes, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, using the “CRISPR-associated protein 9” enzyme abbreviated as “Cas9.” Importantly, scientists say this method suddenly makes gene manipulation easy and quite precise.

It’s hard enough for mere journalists to fully comprehend this process, much less explain it to our audiences, but the biological basics and moral implications are crystal clear.

The AP capably lays out what you need to know in this Nov. 25 scoop and then this savvy folo. Also note the many relevant links in this subsequent Axios backgrounder. Also, see an outstanding analysis in The Economist, right here.

Here’s what journalists need to consider: He reports his experiment has the benign aim of eliminating the AIDS virus (though experts remind us there are other and better ways to aid newborns). Whatever He’s intent, the crux is that, unlike genetic therapies to benefit an individual patient, the CRISPR breakthrough means genetic changes will be passed along to succeeding generations. Even many secular promoters of scientific progress think that line should never be crossed or at least that not enough research has been done yet for procedures to be safe.

Secular or religious thinkers may regard even a very young human embryo as an actual or potential human life worthy of protection, and therefore abhor experiments that destroy it. That’s an important problem, but The Guy suggests journalists sidestep that, and the use of embryos created via IVF (in vitro fertilization), and instead get top ethical and religious sources to discuss just the current developments.

Likewise, unless you’re preparing a sweeping overview about a manufactured and manipulated homo sapiens, The Guy also recommends a tight focus on CRISPR. Leave aside such techniques as IVG (in vitro gametogenesis), MRT (mitochondrial replacement therapy), the unfortunately labeled PERV (porcine endogenous retro-virus), SHEEF (synthetic human entities with embryo-like features), or cloning (production of an exact genetic replica of an individual human).

The debate among scientists mostly avoids whether such research is wrong in principle and largely revolves around the inevitable risks in wading into the genetic unknown. He insists the parents in his experiment were fully informed but others question that. More troubling, the newborns who result are incapable of consenting to their experiment . Experts tell us the long-term genetic dangers to the babies are unknowable.

Reporters should be aware of this gene editing policy (.pdf here) from the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine.

Ordinary folk thinking about this prospect may experience the “yuck factor.” Religious voices, and for certain Catholic traditionalists, will say that in principle such experiments should never occur. But if research is allowed, should it only be conducted using very early embryos? What other safeguards are necessary? Heavy stuff, and vitally important for the human future.