The Progressive Plot to Impose Genetic Enhancements

Despite clear public opinion to the contrary, progressives in Congress are eager to eliminate even the weak regulations that prevent a chaotic explosion of research into genetic engineering of human embryos. Hidden away in a House appropriations agriculture subcommittee, Democrats in May repealed the spending bill rider that prohibited the FDA from considering requests to approve any clinical trial “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification.” Republicans forced the rider to be reinstated on June 4 in the full Appropriations Committee, but its long-term fate remains uncertain.

The headlong pursuit of genetic engineering therapies flies in the face of the American public’s views. An AP-NORC poll last year found that only around 10% of Americans, even without prior education about the potential dangers to individuals and future generations, favored genetically altering embryos to change physical characteristics or capabilities like intelligence or athletic ability. More dramatically, 88% felt it was likely that genetic engineering therapies on embryos, even for the removal of genetic diseases and abnormalities, will be used for unethical reasons.

The Democrats’ attempt to eliminate legal restrictions on genetic engineering experiments is a rare, but significant, public admission of an alliance between political progressives and research institutions. Our world is going to change dramatically – and soon. We are going to have tiny computer chips and robots floating through our bloodstreams to monitor and even improve our health. Pigs will be grown with human organs for replacing human bodies’ damaged ones. Scientists are on the cusp of a cure for AIDS, robotic arms that respond to an individual’s thoughts without being wired to the brain, and human embryos that are manufactured from stem cells in a laboratory.

Where are we headed next? If you want to know, you’ll need to ask a scientist. Not even the scientists, however, know what to make of an entire generation of “biohackers” who are undermining both government and institutional oversight of genetic engineering.

Josiah Zayner, owner of a biotech firm he runs out of his garage, found out in May that he is under investigation for practicing medicine without a license. Zayner gained the attention of a host of adoring fans as well as the ire of government regulators by publicly injecting himself with a gene editing solution and performing a fecal transplant on himself. The grounds for the investigation, however, seem shaky since Zayner performed the procedures on himself.

Such biohackers form a growing movement of hundreds of entrepreneurs and daredevils who justify their work with appeals to treasured American values. Zayner sees himself as a rebel against a bureaucratic government that “refuses to allow people access to cutting edge treatments or in some cases even basic healthcare, yet I am the one threatened with jail.” Biohacker David Ishee also reflects the suspicions of many innovative genetic researchers regarding an aggressive new stance by the FDA: “It’s regulation to control who can use these new technologies and how much money they need to have to use them, not regulation to mitigate any risks.”

Established scientists and research associations, however, express horror over the species-wide consequences of the worst of the rogue experiments. Genetic engineering is a rapidly growing and still uncertain science, and DNA edits that are inherited by future generations could hold some nasty, unexpected surprises. When Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced in late 2018 that he had not only edited the genes of twin embryos but then guided them to birth – an experiment that was risky and violated an array of ethical research guidelines – the condemnations by the international community of scientists were swift and harsh.

Scientific associations claim to be running to the rescue of a society threatened by premature genetic engineering experiments. A coalition of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, U.S. National Academy of Medicine, and U.K. Royal Society, with input from dozens of other associations, say they are developing an authoritative set of ethical criteria and standards for research into genetic engineering on human embryos. They follow the World Health Organization, which formed an expert panel on human genome editing in March that recommended all related experiments be entered into an international registry. International regulation of both the practices and ethics of researchers seems to be the order of the day.

Does such self-policing by worldwide scientists and researchers represent the values of American citizens? The scientific associations’ ethical deliberations show little respect for the wishes of non-scientists. Their ethics panels include experts in science, and only rarely do they tolerate professional bioethicists. They do not include religious scholars, philosophers, or social scientists who may have very different judgments.

At no point do the panels consider the fundamental concerns of religious groups about genetic procedures that destroy thousands of human embryos in research and will likely do the same when therapies are enacted. New persons manufactured through altering the DNA of embryos may have severe difficulties in relationships with achievement-expectant parents and a society that perceives a warrant for further discrimination against people with disabilities. Persons who are altered in such a way, especially if their abilities and physical characteristics are greatly enhanced, may grow up with significant identity, relational, and spiritual challenges that are rarely discussed by academics other than a few conservatives like Leon Kass.

The wealthy are more likely to afford any new genetic enhancement therapies, exacerbating inequality in our society. Progressives will then use the public’s demand for new genetic engineering therapies to promote dystopian regulations that enforce or fund genetic enhancement for all. On June 12 in STAT, Sen. Bill Cassidy penned an essay that called for solutions like Medicaid payments for genetic therapies and an international fund that would direct national contributions to support for genetic therapies desired by favored populations. A new generation of advocates of “liberal eugenics,” including Nicholas Agar, Jonathan Glover, Jeff McMahan, Ronald Green, Allen Buchanan, and Julian Savulescu, promote not only the use, but sometimes the obligation, of genetic engineering to enhance the inherited characteristics and abilities of human beings and eliminate supposedly unwanted disabilities from the population.

The scientific associations claiming to regulate genetic engineering research are well aware they have little authority to enforce their ethical guidelines; He Jiankui conducted his unauthorized experiments in a context of strict laws, institutional sanctions, and peers’ ethical standards. We have seen this scenario before in the 1970s, when scientists declared a moratorium on research into recombinant DNA research. The insincere moratorium was undermined in just a few years by independently operating researchers, and the technique is now the widely practiced basis for a profitable industry.

Religious and other critics of the new genetic engineering technologies will likely experience a barrage of dismissive, ideological taunts. Disability rights activist George Estreich recorded such labels as “fearful, uninformed, paranoid, Luddite, vociferous, loud, anti-science, anti-technology” in his book Fables and Futures. Even when Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov announced last month that he fully intended to bring more genetically engineered embryos to birth, there was no response in the media to his harshly anti-religious rhetoric. He said in an interview with Science, “these people who are opposed want to have all these things in their children but only by ‘divine providence,’ not by science. They are liars or stupid.”

Conservatives have an uphill battle in urging values-based judgments of the many possibilities that will tempt our technologically-obsessed society. Scientists like Rebrikov resort to an argument from inevitability: “We can’t stop progress with words on paper. So even if we say, let’s not do the nuclear physics, because it can make a bomb, a lot of scientists will still do this. We can’t stop it.”

The American public, if it responds soon, may yet have the last word.

Graphic credit: Public Domain Pictures

Christopher M. Reilly is a Christian bioethicist who manages the website He holds a Master’s degree in public affairs and is currently a graduate student in theology and bioethics at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.