Genetically modifying future children isn’t just wrong. It would harm all of us

Genome editing for human embryos is an unnecessary threat to society. Why has the Nuffield Council of Bioethics endorsed it?
Embryo selection for IVF light micrograph
‘There is a global agreement that heritable genetic modification should remain off limits.’ Human embryos.
Photograph: Science Photo Library – ZEPHYR/Getty Images

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has taken what it clearly regards as a brave new step: it has openly endorsed the use of genome editing to engineer the traits of future children and generations. The council’s report, Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues, asserts that such a move could be “morally permissible” under certain circumstances. In effect, it argues that the creation of genetically modified human beings should proceed after a few bioethics-lite boxes are checked off.

The report’s conclusion flies in the face of a widespread global agreement that heritable genetic modification should remain off-limits, a commitment reflected in the laws of many nations, a binding European treaty, several international declarations, and numerous public opinion surveys.

Unfortunately, a number of scientists and bioethicists, especially in the United States, have recently reached conclusions similar to the Nuffield council’s. But their reasoning has been quite different. Until now, proponents of heritable genetic modification have typically argued that if it is shown to be safe, it should be allowed only as a medical matter, only to prevent the births of children with serious genetic diseases, only if no alternatives are available, and certainly not for enhancement or cosmetic purposes.

The council’s report has now dispensed with those fig leaves. Its clarity about why it supports heritable genetic modification, and what’s at stake, may be its most important – though unintended – contribution to the controversy.

The report recognises that heritable genetic modification cannot be understood as medicine: there is no sick person in need of treatment or cure. It doesn’t try to justify heritable genetic modification as a way of preventing the transmission of serious genetic disease, it acknowledges that this can be accomplished with existing reproductive procedures such as the embryo screening technique known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

These points are usually raised as part of the case that existing prohibitions on heritable genetic modification should be maintained and strengthened. After all, if the medical justification is tenuous at best, and if the technology isn’t needed to allow carriers of seriously deleterious genetic variants to have genetically related and unaffected children, why would anyone consider an irreversible experiment in manipulating embryonic genes?

Then there is the societal perspective typically emphasised by opponents of heritable genetic modification: the deep concern that trying to define and enforce limits wouldn’t work; that the line between “therapy” and “enhancement” is too blurry and subjective to enact as policy; that we would soon find ourselves in a world in which parents pursued projects to improve their children at the one-cell stage. The Nuffield report admits that the classic distinction between “therapeutic” and “enhancement” uses of heritable genetic modification cannot be expected to hold, and it foresees that the technology could be harnessed to create “supersenses or superabilities” for genetically engineered offspring, and to satisfy parents’ “preferences” for children with “certain characteristics”.

Again, it seems strange for supporters of heritable genetic modification to raise the prospect of a world in which the affluent purchase genetic upgrades for their children, and to acknowledge that if widely adopted, this powerful technology could “produce or exacerbate social division, or marginalise or disadvantage groups in society”. In fact, avoiding that eventuality is one of two principles offered as a guide to the ethical use of heritable genome editing interventions.

This makes it all the more striking that the report, several years in the making and almost 200 pages long, barely considers the social, commercial and competitive dynamics that would powerfully promote such an outcome, or how they could be mitigated. Though it substantively addresses discrimination against people with disabilities, it has almost nothing to say about vulnerabilities to injustice due to racism, sexism, socioeconomic status and other forms of inequality. Instead, it pleads that it is “beyond the scope of this report to reflect the range of futures that contain the various possible genomic technologies (or none)”.

The bottom line is all too clear. Sadly, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has given its blessing to an unneeded and societally dangerous biotechnology, one that could be leveraged by privileged elites seeking purported genetic improvements to ensure that their children are treated as superior to the rest of us. Haven’t we been down the path of biologically defined hierarchies before? In a world plagued with obscene inequalities, in a time of resurgent racism, is this the road we want to travel?

There is still time to turn back. We can refuse to allow inequalities to be inscribed in our genomes. We can forgo a future in which class divisions harden into genetic castes. We can instead affirm the widespread rejection of heritable genetic modification, and reclaim biotechnology as an instrument for fostering solidarity and serving the common good.

Marcy Darnovsky is executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society and co-editor, with Osagie K Obasogie, of Beyond Bioethics: Toward a New Biopolitics.


What does the Qur’an say?

Genetic Engineering

IN THE FIELD OF GENETIC ENGINEERING, it has today become possible to change certain features of life. But in the age when the following verse was revealed, no one could imagine such a thing in his wildest fancy. Below is the relevant verse and its translation:

… And he (Satan) said, ‘I will assuredly take a fixed portion from Thy servants;

‘And assuredly I will lead them astray and assuredly I will excite in them vain desires, and assuredly I will incite them and they will cut the ears of cattle…’ 1

The idea of mutilation of animals by chopping off their tails or slitting their ears is not what is meant here by the Quran. It simply refers to the common practice among the Arabs in pre-Islamic times to make incisions in the ears of animals marked for sacrifice to various gods. However, what follows in the same verse is of a far more dramatic and revolutionary nature. The verse ends by attributing to Satan another malevolent intention, to incite mankind to bring about changes in the pattern of God’s creation. The verse continues:

… ‘and assuredly I will incite them and they will effect a change in the creation of Allah.’ And he who takes Satan as a friend besides Allah has certainly suffered a manifest loss. 2

The possibility of changing the nature of God’s creation was not an idea that people of earlier times could have entertained. Clearly the verse is speaking of possibilities that had not yet dawned on the horizon of earlier eras. To inflict superficial injuries or to make small changes, through incisions for example, is quite a simple process and lies within the reach of man of all ages. However, the possibility of man bringing about substantial changes in God’s creation has always been beyond the reach of human imagination, prior to the most recent times. The addition of genetic engineering as a new branch of scientific study is only a decade or two old. Yet this branch of science is moving rapidly to the stage against which a clear warning had been delivered by the Quran fourteen hundred years ago. Man has already started interfering with the plan of creation and to some measure has succeeded in altering the forms of life at the level of bacteria, insects etc. A few steps further and it may spell disaster. Some scientists have already started sounding the alarm. But unfortunately, to reverse the wheel of experimentation in this field already seems to be beyond their power.

Scholars are divided in two camps regarding the very ethics of genetic engineering. Some are throwing up their hands in alarm, whilst others argue that we should develop this field to its fullest extent so that we may discover the secrets of creation. They believe that technological developments in this field will brighten the future of man.

In America the debates are ferociously raging between the two camps which approve or disapprove of genetic engineering. Some legal suits and litigations against the unrestricted experiments of genetic engineering are pending in the courts of the United States. It is argued that already the experiments have defied the scientific expectations of what should have resulted from the transfer of genes from one species to another. In some cases the deviation from the expected course is surprisingly greater than even the sceptics could suspect. Until now, however, things have not gone completely out of hand. The experiments carried out on certain strains of bacteria and crops are proving beneficial for enhancing agricultural produce and protecting it from certain diseases. But it is far too early indeed to exult in these small transient gains.

What ultimate effects the new synthetic strains or altered species will have on the ecology in the future, cannot be assessed until the behaviour of the altered strains is closely and minutely monitored for a few successive generations. The danger of the disaster which they may spell is, however, real and substantial. If not strictly monitored, injudicious experimentation with genetic engineering could let loose some unpredictable form of life which may defy human control. The certainty with which the Quran has warned against the punishment of meddling with the creation of God bodes ill for the future of life on earth. Allah knows best if man will ever cease to play God. Can any measure, short of extinction, teach him the lesson in humility?

IT IS WRONG however to infer that this verse condemns all possible usage of genetic engineering. Any branch of science which is pressed into the service of His creation and employed to protect, rather than change it, is certainly not discouraged. If for instance genetic engineering is employed to correct faults in genetic codes caused by accidents, this can in no way be dubbed as interference with the Divine scheme of things. Again, if damage to genetic codes by disease or imprudent medication is attempted to be corrected through genetic engineering, this is certainly not what is condemned in the above verse.

All said and done, it cannot be overemphasized that scientists should not be given a free hand to trifle with the grand scheme of Divine Creation. They must thank their lucky stars if grave accidents have not already happened. They will have none to thank but themselves if they do. We do hope that the world governments will keep a strict watch over the trends and scope of experimentation in the field of genetic engineering. What hangs in the balance is the honour and dignity of the human species within the animal kingdom. We do hope and pray that mankind will be spared the torment of haplessly watching the day when it will be mastered by the synthetic slaves of its own creation.


  1. Translation of 4:119–120 by Maulawi Sher Ali. (Note: The word ‘Satan’ in brackets has been added by the author).
  2. Translation of 4:120 by the author.




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