United Kingdom ethics body says gene-edited babies may be 'morally permissible'

Baby. File pic

The Nuffield Council of Bioethics, an independent charitable body investigating the ethics of certain biological and medical developments, said in a report that while it does not support overhauling current legislation so that embryo gene editing can be carried out, it does not mean the United Kingdom should fall short of doing so in the future.

In other words, the report suggests that human genome editing for the objective of genetic improvement, and not only the avoidance of disease, may be morally acceptable, an affirmation that can not help raising the specter of eugenics and designer babies.

For nearly two years, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has run an independent inquiry on "heritable genome editing", which is when scientists modify eggs, sperm, or embryos that will then develop to become a person.

The debate over the ethics of editing embryo genomes has been ongoing since the advent of gene-editing technologies, but recent advances in gene editing - namely, CRISPR-Cas9 - have made the debate more prominent.

While not suggesting laws to be altered in its favor, the report calls for more research into the safety and effectiveness, its social impact and more discussions about the potential implications.

Nevertheless, the science behind it is far from ideal, and in some cases has proven unsafe and problematic.

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The NCB report doesn't say we should only make edits to embryos for therapeutic reasons, meaning changes for cosmetic reasons are still on the table, ethically speaking.

That is, the process of "editing genes" damages healthy cells.

George Church, a Harvard University geneticist, who was not involved in the report, told The Guardian that he agreed with the report that editing DNA "should not be expected to increase disadvantage, discrimination, or division in society", but that making changes to some genes could save some babies from painful diseases.

"There is potential for heritable genome editing interventions to be used at some point in the future in assisted human reproduction, as a means for people to secure certain characteristics in their children", Yeung said in the release.

'Initially, this might involve preventing the inheritance of a specific genetic disorder.

So, while it may still be years before anyone gives birth to a "designer baby", the mere fact that editing human embryos is getting the ethical green light from the NCB is a promising sign for anyone eager for the day gene-editing lets them create the offspring of their dreams.

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