On October 12, 2017, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a recommendation regarding the use of new genetic technologies in human beings, calling on the 47 member States to forbid establishing pregnancies from gametes or human embryos which have been genetically modified.

Headed by Belgian Senator Petra De Sutter, this recommendation appears at a time when the scientific community, as well as many countries, is very concerned about using genome editing tools – especially the CRISPR-Cas9 technique – if it involves modifying the human embryo or germlines.

The ethical stakes of such a commodification of human beings at the very beginning of life are vertiginous, and any germline editing carried out would be transmissible to the following generations. To sound an alert, Alliance VITA published a comprehensive report last May to shed light on  the challenges involved in modifying the human genome with respect of Human Rights and the work carried out by PACE.

According to the Belgian Senator, the scientific consensus is adhering to a de facto moratorium, but this remains to be firmly grounded.  The draft report summary declares: “Deliberate germline editing in human beings would cross a line viewed as ethically inviolable.” The recommendation cites that “other techniques, such as pronuclear transfer technology (“3-parent” IVF technique) which is used to avoid maternal inheritance of mitochondrial disease transmission, have been used and resulted in several babies being born (for reasons other than the treatment of mitochondrial disease), despite considerable ethical controversy and scientific uncertainty about the long-term effects.”

The position affirmed by the Council of Europe is crucial since numerous scientific and ethical bodies are starting to make recommendations. It is based on the International Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (“Oviedo Convention”) which will be marking its 20-year anniversary in a few days. Regarding genetic modification, Article 13 posits that “An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modifications in the genome of any descendants.”

Many Council of Europe member States and all of those in the European Union forbid procedures for human genome editing. The text “urges member States which have not yet ratified the Oviedo Convention to do so without further delay, or as a minimum, to put in place a national ban on establishing pregnancies with germinal cells or human embryos having undergone intentional genome editing.”

Nevertheless, for Alliance VITA, this recommendation does not address some serious uncertain issues. It does not recommend a ban on performing research on embryos and germlines, even though this is a highly controversial issue from both ethical and human standpoints. It also calls for a broader public debate, thus attentive vigilance is warranted.

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For more information on these issues: Audition by ’OPCEST; Blanche Streb – Alliance VITA