Face the human embryo with humility

In an op-ed article published in La Croix (The Cross) newspaper, on Monday June 13, 2016, Tugdual Derville explains how, step-by-step, the human embryo has become the most coveted object. In-vitro experiments, cloning, CRISPR-Cas9… The transgenic embryo could now be a threat for humanity itself. Alliance VITA’s General Delegate calls for a firm bio-political commitment in France against the Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism which endlessly increases the commodification of the human embryo.  

« The human embryo is becoming an increasingly coveted object. Some researchers are touching the origin of life with a determination to master it, in order to transform it, even though it means changing humanity’s destiny. Transhumanists have assumed this position as their openly declared intention.

Three phases have contributed to accelerating this process. In 1978, artificial fertilization outside the maternal body opened a wide range of possibilities. In 1996, the foray of cloning in mammals gave the impression that there could be a radical break between procreation and sexual alterity. The temptation to clone man, this enormous transgression, is still there, and no one knows what might be happening behind the doors in some laboratories. Today with the discovery of the very ingenious CRISPR-Cas9 technology, fantasies are being revived. It’s no longer a question of duplicating humans in the laboratory – by “replicating” instead of procreating in couples – but to reshape man, by editing his genetic code.

As always, sophisticated therapeutic objectives are purported. Although human cloning should be rejected in any and all form whatsoever, the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for humans is different. This technology can be used for the worst and the best. Applied to individuals suffering from certain diseases, these “genetic scissors” can in fact relieve them or even cure them. Even if this perspective is neither immediate, nor guaranteed, these are areas of future research to be encouraged.

It’s another story for applying the same technique to embryos or to gametes: this introduces an irreversible modification in the whole human genome… However, Chinese researchers already claim to have produced transgenic embryos. Although permission has been granted to edit the genomes of human embryos for research in Great Britain, it is nonetheless disquieting for the two inventors of CRISPR-Cas9. In reality, this represents an unprecedented infringement, with unfathomable consequences.

Firstly one should not forget that this perspective led to treating embryos – living human beings – as laboratory material, as if the lack of a “parental project” could confer upon them the status of an object. To legalize a research which destroys embryos constitutes an original breakdown leading to the commodification of life.

French law has authorized this drift by allowing more and more permissive stages. Surreptitiously, without any debate, the law has been made even worse: an amendment to the Health Law, with a particularly ambiguous wording, now allows gametes or human embryos conceived in-vitro to be used as objects for biomedical research “in view of bringing an infant to life”… A slippery slope towards a new form of eugenics?

Another boundary has been crossed with CRISPR-Cas9, with researchers acting at the center of DNA, in the earliest stages of human existence. Researchers argue that those genetically-edited embryos will be destroyed…On the one hand, treating a human being as a guinea pig is inacceptable. On the other hand, the technique of having a foot in the door and making headway is well-known: once experiments are well-advanced the temptation to legalize implanting a transgenic embryo which has been edited to correct a genetic abnormality will be insurmountable.

These GM babies, life-long guinea pigs as a consequence of the edition of their own genes, will transmit to their future descendants their mutations, of which the actual long-term effects are still unknown. Is it necessary to underline how much genetic science is fumbling around? Interactions between genes are relatively unknown. Interfering with one part of the DNA is taking the risk of destabilizing the whole genome.

We are all concerned. Desecrating « the sanctuary of human life” could provoke an unprecedented human ecological disaster worse than those which have already marked our history.

The more powerful man is, the greater his capacity for self-destruction. Examples of sorcerers apprentices abound. It is serious enough to call researchers to more wisdom, and humility, and to incite politicians to address these subjects without further delay. It is urgent to have bio-political regulations for monitoring striving scientists. The citizen’s awareness-raising campaign, Stop GM Babies, launched in conjunction with Alliance VITA, asks for the President of the French Republic to commit to a moratorium to the use of CRISPR-Cas9 on embryos and germ cells. Confronted with the financial interests at stake, our country is still refusing with the commodification of the body. This French exception in bioethics deserves to be congratulated. France is in a position to resist the Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism, using wisely its universal conception of human dignity, without excluding the embryo.