Comments on Nuffield Council report from Center for Genetics and Society

Press Statement
an article about "designer babies" in a turn-of-the-century issue of Time magazine

A panel convened by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics today issued a report asserting that modifying the genes of future children and generations "could be morally permissible." This conclusion rests on a disappointing number of "straw man" arguments and fails to address the social risks that the report itself acknowledges. It also casually dismisses the widespread global agreement – reflected in the laws of many nations, a European treaty, several international declarations, and numerous public opinion surveys – that heritable genetic modification should be prohibited.

"The Nuffield Council report not only fails to advance the discussion about the ethics of heritable genetic modification, it actively sets it back," said Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society.

The report does make a useful contribution by recognizing that heritable genetic modification cannot be considered a medical treatment, since there’s no existing person who is sick and in need of help. It also acknowledges that those at risk of transmitting serious genetic conditions to their children can avoid doing so by using existing reproductive procedures (including pre-implantation genetic diagnosis), and that the commonly drawn distinction between "therapeutic" and "enhancement" uses of heritable genetic modification cannot hold.

"The report is honest in admitting that if heritable genetic modifications are permitted for any reason, efforts to engineer improved models of human beings would soon follow – including by what the report calls ‘enhancing senses or abilities,'" Darnovsky said. "There would be little control even in the relatively regulated UK policy environment, and even less in countries like the United States."

Another clear-eyed point in the report, emphasized in the press release about it, is the potential for heritable genetic modification to "increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society." Yet these eventualities are barely considered. Though the report addresses discrimination against people with disabilities, its 200 pages have almost nothing to say about vulnerabilities due to racism, sexism, socio-economic status, and other prevalent 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," Darnovsky said, "is that the Nuffield report rolls out the red carpet for a future in which the children of elites who can afford purported genetic `upgrades’ are treated as superior to the rest of us – a society of genetic ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.'"

Finally, while the report frequently invokes the need for “broad and inclusive societal debate," this call seems disingenuous in light of its stated conclusion that heritable genetic intervention is morally permissible. “Inviting public discussion of which kinds of genetic enhancements can be marketed is wildly inadequate,” Darnovsky said. “We need meaningful public empowerment on decisions about whether a world of genetically modified children is one we want at all.”