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Human germline is 'not inviolable', says German ethics council

20 May 2019
Appeared in BioNews 999

The German Ethics Council has said that the human germline – that is, DNA inherited by children from their parents – 'is not inviolable' when it comes to potential interventions.

The panel of 26 government-appointed scientific, legal and ethical experts unanimously agreed in a recent report that there are no compelling philosophical arguments against using genome editing technologies such as CRISPR to make heritable changes to human DNA.

It does, however, consider such technologies to be 'ethically irresponsible at the present time', given the as-yet unknown risks associated with altering human germlines.

Germline editing, the report stated, '[is not], in principle, ethically reprehensible', but the use of such technologies currently face 'numerous major obstacles', and 'the risk would have to be reduced to an acceptable level'. 

The 47-page report comes in the wake of the reported use of CRISPR technology by scientist Dr He Jiankui in China last November to edit two IVF embryos, resulting in the birth of healthy twin girls (see BioNews 977).

Importantly, the panel called for a moratorium on pregnancies using genome-edited IVF embryos until an appropriate assessment of their safety and efficacy could be made. In addition, the authors recommended that Germany worked towards a binding international agreement regarding the prospective use of germline editing.

Given that there are currently no international guidelines regarding genome-edited embryos, the question of whether such a moratorium should be voluntary or legally binding is a controversial decision.  

According to an article in STAT, the use of Nazi eugenics programmes during the Second World War meant that Germany had historically been reluctant to involve itself in the discourse around germline genome editing.

Now, a large majority of the council see the development and application of the technology as 'a legitimate ethical goal when aimed at avoiding or reducing genetically determined disease risks'. For example, if the procedure could be used to alter a gene that would otherwise cause an illness such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anaemia, then they believe its prospective use would be justified. 

Regarding the potential ethical violation of human dignity, 'the question also arises as to whether the renunciation of germline intervention, which could spare the people concerned severe suffering, would not violate their human dignity too', the council wrote. 

Nonetheless, the report stressed that a significant amount of legislation, public discussion and further basic research should take place before genome editing could be used in embryos.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Ethics Council: germline interventions currently too risky, but not ethically out of the question
The German Ethics Council |  9 May 2019
German ethics council expresses openness to eventual embryo editing
STAT |  13 May 2019
German Ethics Council: Germline editing 'not ethically out of the question'
European Scientist |  15 May 2019
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