The cover story in July 4 edition of Time magazine examines the gene editing technique known as CRISPR. The article is helpful for understanding the basics of the science of CRISPR, and it raises a number of the ethical issues involved—the unknowns of heritable genetic changes, the potential for weaponization, imperfections in the technique itself.
But all of these ethical issues are framed only around their consequences. That is to say, the ethics raised are only utilitarian, only “risk-benefit balances.”
There seems to be no space in the article for raising other ethical questions about whether experimenting on human embryos in a lab is right or wrong. There is a parenthetical mention that experimentation on human embryos beyond 14 days is prohibited in the UK, and mention that the only laws regarding human embryo experimentation in the US have to do with whether government funds may be used, but no deeper examination of why these (minimal) restrictions are in place.
Indeed, according to the author of the piece, an embryo is “an egg that has been fertilized by a sperm but hasn’t yet begun the cell division that eventually leads to a person.” This is stated as simple fact, subjected to no larger examination of varying perspectives, nor raising questions about where the notion of separating human embryo from person came from or if it is in any way appropriate.
There is no examination of the ethics not only of designing our offspring, but indeed of manufacturing embryos, that is, of making rather than begetting. This ethical conversation seems to have been decided. And the decision is that it does not matter; making children is either no different than, or on a utilitarian basis is better than, begetting.
But what have we lost? How has the shift from begetting to making children changed humanity? I submit that we do not know because we—broadly as a society—have given it hardly a minute’s thought.
And yet, as Brent Waters pointed out at our Ramsey Dinner this year, “Ramsey warned that it is perilous to transform the natural procreation of children into reproductive projects, for in the latter, offspring are effectively reduced to artifacts of the parents’ will; children are made rather than begotten.”
Why is this perilous? Because the relationship between maker and made is far different than a relationship based on the equality of being, and of being only human. He warned that the value of humans cannot be increased by presumably making them more desirable, but rather, humans are to be cherished simply for who they are. Ramsey’s voice still beckons us to ponder how much further down the road of artifice should we travel.
This is not a utilitarian argument, but rather a relational one. What is the relationship between parent and child? Between begetter and begotten? Between maker and made? When, how, in what ways, to what degree can and should science and medicine step into (step in between) this relationship? What are the limits? Why are those limits important? These are vital questions. Who will ask them? Who will answer them?
How much further down the road of artifice should we travel? This is a key question Time doesn’t ask. The question asked instead is merely, what is the risk-benefit balance? This is a great failure.
There may be valuable scientific knowledge which it is morally impossible to obtain. There may be truths which would be of great and lasting benefit to mankind if they could be discovered, but which cannot be discovered without systematic and sustained violations of legitimate moral imperatives.
— Paul Ramsey, The Patient as Person
Paul Ramsey presenting the Ashley Lectures at NYU,
March 25, 1958, courtesy of the Ramsey family