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December 25, 2018

The Ethics of Heritable Genome Editing: New Considerations in a Controversial Area

Author Affiliations
  • 1Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
  • 2Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Harvard Law School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
JAMA. 2018;320(24):2531-2532. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.18270

On July 17, 2018, the UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics released its long-awaited report on the social and ethical issues raised by heritable genome editing.1 The significance of the report has only been heightened by unconfirmed news from China of the birth of twins whose genomes are said to have been edited before implantation.2 Heritable genome editing denotes the modification of the DNA of an embryo, sperm, or egg to alter the characteristics of future generations.1 Unlike earlier reports, this report rejects drawing a distinction between therapeutic heritable genome editing (eg, corrects disease-causing genes) and heritable genome editing intended for cognitive or physical enhancement (eg, augments stature or other attributes).1,3 According to the report, either approach “could be ethically acceptable” as long as such interventions are (1) “intended to secure, and are consistent with, the welfare of a person who may be born as a consequence” and (2) “uphold principles of social justice and solidarity” and “should not produce or exacerbate social division, or marginalise or disadvantage groups in society.”1 The main underlying principle of the report was that “the desire of people…to secure…the welfare of their children by using genome editing to influence their inherited characteristics gave rise to a morally powerful claim.”1 In this Viewpoint, we examine the report and explore the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ rejection of the notion that genes alone account for who humans are (ie, genomic essentialism) as key to the formulation of their recommendations.

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