A panel of government-appointed experts in Germany agreed unanimously that the human germline — DNA that is inherited by children from their parents — “is not inviolable,” rejecting one objection to using genome editing technologies such as CRISPR to make heritable changes in the DNA of human embryos, sperm, or eggs.
In a 47-page report made public on Monday, the independent German Ethics Council concluded that the power of CRISPR, and the announcement last November that a scientist in China had used it to edit two IVF embryos that resulted in the birth of twin girls, means that “the possibility of intervening more easily and precisely in the human germline is drawing closer and closer.”
Although the council’s 26 ethicists, legal scholars, scientists, and other experts agreed unanimously that there are no compelling philosophical arguments against altering human germlines, they also concluded that it is ethically irresponsible to do so now.
Germline editing, the council wrote, is not “in principle, ethically reprehensible.” But because it faces “numerous major [technical] obstacles,” before it is used for reproduction “the risks would have to be reduced to an acceptable level.”
The report called for a moratorium on creating pregnancies with gene-edited IVF embryos — as numerous scientists and others have in the wake of the “CRISPR babies” announcement — and recommended that Germany work toward a binding international agreement on the circumstances under which it might ever be acceptable and to develop guidelines for germline editing. The question of whether an international moratorium should be voluntary or binding is controversial, so the council’s call for the latter is “a major take-home,” said bioethicist George Annas of Boston University.
The council’s openness to human germline editing was notable, however. Because of the Nazis’ eugenics programs and horrific human medical experiments, Germany has historically been even warier than other Western countries of medical technologies that might violate human dignity or could be exploited for eugenic purposes. The country’s 1990 Embryo Protection Act prohibits germline modifications for the purpose of reproduction.
“Germany has been very reluctant to get involved with anything that could lead to a re-introduction of eugenic practices in their society,” Annas said.
Despite that history, a large majority of the council called further development and possible use of germline editing “a legitimate ethical goal when aimed at avoiding or reducing genetically determined disease risks,” it said in a statement. If the procedure can be shown not to harm embryos or the children they become, it added, then altering a gene that otherwise causes a devastating illness such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell is acceptable.
While some ethicists and others argue against embryo editing on the ground that it violates the embryos’ dignity, the German council wrote, “the question also arises as to whether the renunciation of germline intervention, which could spare the people concerned severe suffering, would not violate their human dignity, too.” Similarly, failing to intervene in order to spare a future child pain and suffering “would at least have to be justified,” the council said, echoing arguments that some families with a history of inherited diseases have.
It also called for more basic research on germline editing, stopping short of pregnancies, in order to “improve the level of knowledge about [its] safety and efficacy.”
The German council’s report comes a week after researchers in the U.S. presented a study showing that the objections many ethicists and scientists have to germline editing are not widely shared by those who would be first in line for it: couples undergoing IVF.
Researchers led by Dr. Siwon Lee of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach asked 587 such would-be parents about their views on genome editing. Three-quarters said they did not object to genome editing of embryos, and a majority said they would be interested in utilizing it for their own embryos “to improve the likelihood of having a child unaffected by a heritable, genetic mutation,” Lee and colleagues reported at the annual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.