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Not Satire: Ethically-Challenged WHO Wants to Take Lead on the Ethics of Human Genome Editing

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

The World Health Organization (WHO) has done it again. Barreling past the rest of the international scientific community, WHO recently staked a claim on a monumental issue for which it has no credibility to lead: the ethics of human genome editing (HGE). Released in two reports, the long-anticipated ethical guidelines published this summer are a satirist’s dream. 


Penned by another infamous committee of “experts,” WHO’s global framework for the governance and oversight of human genome editing is damagingly insufficient and equally laughable. The publication itself reads like a poorly authored undergraduate report, approximately half of which merely lists the credentials of experts in lieu of substantive analysis.

The series of alarming recommendations hinges on WHO self-declaring as the leading ethical voice on gene-editing oversight moving forward, claiming to be uniquely positioned “to lead through moral suasion.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The last year alone speaks to WHO’s incompetency following its catastrophic response to COVID-19, which prolonged and exacerbated the pandemic’s devastation. The organization’s failed leadership is further defined by years of scandalous blunders that include allegations of fraud, covering up epidemics, paying favors to China, honoring world tyrants, and mishandling global health crises like Ebola – all of which have garnered worldwide criticism. It is simply the last institution to be trusted on scientific and moral leadership.

WHO further admits that it “did not include a review of matters to do with safety and efficacy” in its analysis, as if these are peripheral concerns. In fact, controversy over HGE dominates global scientific debates and is fraught with tension and discord over these prime two concerns. The dawn of CRISPR, likely the most familiar gene-editing tool, began an avalanche of safety and efficacy dilemmas—the genesis of which became public when China’s Dr. He produced what are believed to be the world’s first gene-edited babies. An international scandal, He’s experiments unleashed dismay and condemnation from leading geneticists about dangerous ethical and technical errors (the Frankenstein-like flaws of which are outlined here).  


Above all, WHO’s report is fundamentally flawed because it fails to even consider what the rest of the world is still asking: whether or not genetically modifying humans is ethical at all. It instead assumes that changing the blueprint to the human genome—wielding a tool that can redefine whole swaths of humanity—is a non-negotiable, a given, a reality not up for debate.

Ethical qualms about HGE are not only the realm of alarmists and skeptics. Designer babies, non-therapeutic genetic enhancements and “a new form of eugenics” are warned of by leading global scientists, geneticists and doctors. Modifying the human blueprint could create entirely new classes of people, separated from the genetic elite by genetic deficiencies, disabilities, or other “undesirable” qualities--subjugating some and alienating all.  One writer has even suggested humankind could be engineered into distinct species, unable to reproduce with one another.

Even top proponents of gene-editing call for a global moratoriumon these experiments, even a temporary one, yet WHO can’t bring itself to consider doing so at all. Moratorium isn’t suggested once throughout the 64-page framework, pitting the WHO against some of the most prominent genetics specialists in the world who insist such an action is necessary to rightly consider the gravity of germline (heritable) editing.  


For an organization that proclaims to be driven by principles of “inclusion” and “social justice,” WHO’s haphazard analysis does not even begin to consider the consequences such a shallow review might have on human beings vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of inhumane experiments—like the embryos already condemned to a brief lifetime of abuse in gene-editing trials they have no agency over. This is already the fate of some human beings and will become the fate of many more when medical treatments and enhancements become the next bargaining chip for those in power to create genetic caste systems.

WHO’s moral reasoning lays a foundation that can only fail: one that lacks objective scrutiny, is at odds with global geneticists and ethicists, and carelessly toys with our lives and the lives of all future generations. We cannot allow WHO to lead on the ethics of human genome editing. Otherwise, we stand the certain risk of forfeiting the human body and soul to become—as best put by one of the creators of CRISPR herself—“as malleable as a piece of literary prose at the mercy of an editor’s red pen.”

Edie Heipel is a Fellow at the Center for Renewing America. She is a guest contributor for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.


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