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Will CRISPR Germline Engineering Close the Door to an Open Future?


The bioethical principle of autonomy is problematic regarding the future of the embryo who lacks the ability to self-advocate but will develop this defining human capacity in time. Recent experiments explore the use of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/Cas9 for germline engineering in the embryo, which alters future generations. The embryo’s inability to express an autonomous decision is an obvious bioethical challenge of germline engineering. The philosopher Joel Feinberg acknowledged that autonomy is developing in children. He advocated that to reserve this future autonomy, parents should be guided to make ethical decisions that provide children with open futures. Here, Feinberg’s 1980 open future theory is extended to the human embryo in the context of CRISPR germline engineering. Although the embryo does not possess the autonomous decision-making capacity at the time of germline engineering, the parental decision to permanently change the unique genetic fabric of the embryo and subsequent generations disregards future autonomy. Therefore, germline engineering in many instances is objectionable considering Feinberg’s open future theory.

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  1. 1.

    There is currently debate regarding which institution was the first to patent CRISPR technology (The University of California Berkley or Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard) but published accounts occurred within 2012–2013.

  2. 2.

    Many diseases are caused by multiple gene mutations. To eliminate diseases caused by multiple known genes, multiplex CRISPR genetic engineering would need to be applied. This is more complicated and will take more time to develop.

  3. 3.

    Genetically engineering a trait is difficult because in many circumstances there is not a direct relationship between a single gene and a trait. For instance, there are multiple genes associated with height or intelligence. Consequently, these applications will come later, as these genetic targets are pinpointed and multiplex genetic engineering is further developed.


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Correspondence to Ruth L. Fischbach.

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Mintz, R.L., Loike, J.D. & Fischbach, R.L. Will CRISPR Germline Engineering Close the Door to an Open Future?. Sci Eng Ethics 25, 1409–1423 (2019).

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  • Germline engineering
  • Human embryo
  • Autonomy
  • Paternalism
  • Joel Feinberg
  • Open future
  • Human dignity