Back to Basics: Application of the Principles of Bioethics to Heritable Genome Interventions


Prior to their announcement of the birth of gene-edited twins in China, Dr. He Jiankui and colleagues published a set of draft ethical principles for discussing the legal, social, and ethical aspects of heritable genome interventions. Within this document, He and colleagues made it clear that their goal with these principles was to “clarify for the public the clinical future of early-in-life genetic surgeries” or heritable genome editing. In light of He’s widely criticized gene editing experiments it is of interest to place these draft principles in the larger ethical debate surrounding heritable genome editing. Here we examine the principles proposed by He and colleagues through the lens of Beauchamp and Childress’ Principles of Biomedical Ethics. We also analyze the stated goal that the “clinical future” of heritable genome editing was clarified by He and colleagues’ proposed principles. Finally, we highlight what might be done to help prevent individual actors from pushing forward ahead of broad societal consensus on heritable genome editing.

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    Heritable genome editing and germline genome editing are two terms that are often used interchangeably; however, they imply different things. For the context of this article, heritable genome editing refers to edits made that are indeed heritable, meaning that the genome modification is performed in viable embryos (or gametes) and result in implantation and full-term pregnancy. Germline genome editing refers to any edit made to the genome that does not result in a heritable modification.

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    It should be noted that while the principle of nonmaleficence certainly plays a role in the ethics of heritable genome editing, nonmaleficence is not explicitly covered by He and colleagues proposed principles and therefore a detailed analysis of nonmaleficence will not be covered here.

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G.D. is funded for research involving CRISPR technologies by a Project Grant (PJT-156017) from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and L.J.G. is supported by the Vanier Canadian Graduate Scholarship program through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). We would also like to thank Dr. Françoise Baylis and Dr. Natalie Kofler for many clarifying and insightful conversations.

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Correspondence to Graham Dellaire.

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Getz, L.J., Dellaire, G. Back to Basics: Application of the Principles of Bioethics to Heritable Genome Interventions. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2735–2748 (2020).

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  • Heritable genome editing
  • CRISPR/Cas9
  • Autonomy
  • Justice
  • Beneficence and non-maleficence