By CRG Staff

On Feb. 13, CRG Board Chair and Co-founder Professor Sheldon Krimsky participated in a debate held by the program Intelligence Squared, which airs on NPR and PBS. The topic: Should we prohibit genetically engineered babies? Professor Krimsky argued in favor of a ban, joined by Robert Winston, professor at Imperial College London. Nita Farahany, professor at Duke University and a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, and Lee Silver, professor at Princeton University, argued against the ban.

As Prof. Krimsky pointed out, there are two main reasons that parents might consider prenatal genetic modification of reproductive cells (sperm, eggs, or zygote): for curing or preventing genetic disease, or for "enhancement of a person."

"For genetic diseases, in the great majority of cases there are simpler, less risky, less costly, less ethically controversial, and more dependable methods" of detecting and avoiding severe genetic abnormalities through prenatal embryo diagnosis, Prof. Krimsky said. This means that other than a couple of rare exceptions, such as mitochondrial disease, "the only sensible rationale for engaging in genetic modification of the fertilized egg is for the enhancement of a child"-selecting for (or attempting to select for) traits such as height, physical appearance, or intelligence.

"Engaging in genetic modification of human gametes, the human reproductive cells, for enhancement is where I find the greatest moral failure and the greatest scientific folly," Prof. Krimsky said. He and Prof. Winston outlined some of the many things that could go wrong in the course of attempting to carry out genetic modification of human reproductive cells, including-since this can't be fully tested in rats, or even chimpanzees-the prospect of human clinical trials.

Furthermore, Prof. Krimsky said, in regard to parents genetically modifying their future child, "from a biological and developmental standpoint, the so-called traits under consideration cannot remotely be enhanced by the modification of a gene or two." Traits from muscle tone to nearly anything related to human behavior are shaped by a complex array of factors, both genetic and environmental. You can't think of the human genome as "a Lego set," Prof. Krimsky said, "where pieces of DNA can be plugged in or out without interfering with the other parts of the system. Actually, the human genome is more like an ecosystem where all the parts interrelate and are in mutual balance."

"I am all for human enhancement, but it must start after an egg is fertilized," Prof. Krimsky said, "beginning in utero by protecting the fetus from toxic chemicals and continuing postnatally through environmental, nutritional and cognitive enhancement and moral education. Enhancement through genetic engineering of human germ plasm is a fool's paradise and will lead to no good."

The full debate is available here.

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