Ethical Dilemma

Feb 1, 2019 |

“China Confirms He Jiankui Gene-Edited Babies, Says Scientists Involved Will Be ‘Dealt With Seriously’”

https://www.newsweek.com/china-gene-editing-he-jiankui-broke-law-ethics-experiments-hiv-babies-1298864

According to the article, an investigation by authorities in China has concluded that a scientist in the country did create the world’s first gene-edited babies.

According to a report in China’s Xinhua news agency, He Jiankui performed human embryo gene-editing activities despite them being “officially banned in the country.” The report said He, along with the other researchers involved, would be punished in accordance with the law. The case has now been handed over to the Ministry of Public Security.

He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in the Guangdong province, announced the world’s first gene-edited babies at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November last year. He said he had altered the DNA of seven human embryos to make them more resistant to HIV and that this experiment had resulted in the birth of twin girls.

He was condemned by scientists across the globe, who said the experiments were unethical and dangerous. Many critics said there was no way of knowing the long-term effects of gene editing. Furthermore, He did not provide evidence showing exactly what he had done, meaning his peers could not review the work he had carried out—a hallmark of scientific research.

His claims were also denounced by Chinese authorities, which suspended He’s research activities and launched an investigation into the claims. According to Xinhua, the government said the experiments were “extremely abominable” and that they were in direct violation of the laws and ethics of the country. He was reportedly placed in a government-owned apartment, possibly under some form of house arrest.

According to the South China Morning Post, the report into He’s activities show he had “organized a project team that included foreign staff, which intentionally avoided surveillance and used technology of uncertain safety and effectiveness to perform human embryo gene-editing activity with the purpose of reproduction, which is officially banned in the country.”
Xinhua claims He self-funded the experiment in pursuit of “personal fame and fortune” and forged ethical review papers to push ahead with the work. He recruited eight couples for the experiment. This resulted in two pregnancies, with the six other couples withdrawing from He’s program. Support is currently being provided to the families of the babies involved.

“This behavior seriously violates ethics and scientific research integrity, and seriously violates relevant state regulations,” Xinhua said. “The relevant person in charge of the investigation team said that He Jiankui and the personnel and institutions involved will be dealt with seriously according to the law.”

Earlier this month, one of He’s colleagues told the U.K.’s Telegraph that the scientist could face the death penalty if the state brings charges of corruption and bribery against him. Robin Lovell-Badge, from London’s Francis Crick Institute, told the newspaper, “There is an official investigation led by the ministries of science and health. Lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs. He wasn’t the only one involved in this, obviously. So how has he got them to do all this work? He could be had up on all sorts of charges of corruption, and being guilty of corruption in China these days is not something you want to be. Quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption.”

In an email to Lovell-Badge following the death penalty reports, He said that contrary to many reports, he was “actually doing well.”

Discussion Questions

1. As the article indicates, Jiankui He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in the Guangdong province of China, announced the world’s first gene-edited babies at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. He said he had altered the DNA of seven human embryos to make them more resistant to HIV and that this experiment had resulted in the birth of twin girls. Does the fact that He’s objective was a “noble one” (making humans more resistant to HIV) diminish or eliminate the ethical concerns in this case? Why or why not?

This is an opinion question, so student responses may vary. The crux of the ethical debate here is whether the “greater good” should prevail in this case (with humans potentially less subject to disease), or whether concerns regarding “playing God” through genetic engineering should rule the day.

2. Would your opinion regarding He’s practices be different if he had engaged in human genetic engineering in the private sector, as opposed to the public sector? Explain your response.

This is an opinion question, so student responses may vary. Arguably, an act or decision is either ethical or unethical regardless of whether it occurs in the public or private sector.

3. As the article indicates, under Chinese law, He could be subject to the death penalty. In your reasoned opinion, should this even be a possibility? Why or why not?

This is an opinion question, so student responses may vary. In the United States, the death penalty is reserved exclusively for first-degree (premeditated and deliberated) murder. Despite the controversy surrounding the death penalty in the United States (particularly, whether the death penalty itself is unethical), some individuals favor expanding the death penalty to other types of offenses.