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China troubles ethicists with embryo destruction and frightening possibilities in genetic engineering

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Genetic engineering has taken a new and disturbing twist in China, and Westerners fear it may come this way if not headed off beforehand. The New York Times reports on the efforts of China to become a biomedical engineering powerhouse—and spending billions of dollars to do so — potentially at the cost of destroying or altering human life.

The story reports:

“Scientists around the world were shocked in April when a team led by Huang Junjiu, 34, at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, published the results of an experiment in editing the genes of human embryos.

“The technology, called Crispr-Cas9, may one day be used to eradicate inheritable illnesses. But in theory, it also could be used to change such traits as eye color or intelligence, and to ensure that the changes are passed on to future generations.”

In their research, the scientists attempted to modify a gene that caused a disorder, the Times says, and in the process failed at it — 85 times. In other words, 85 human embryos were sacrificed for this failed research because China didn’t want to wait to do this research, even though many think they are plowing ahead too quickly and running over human ethical bounds.

Human embryos in China may be used if they are 14-days-old or younger, which lends itself to questionable ethic, Deng Rui, a medical ethicist at Shanxi Medical University, told the Times:

“The ‘red line’ in the West and in China are not too similar. Ethics are a question of culture, and that is about tradition, especially where it touches on human life.

“Confucian thinking says that someone becomes a person after they are born. That is different from the United States or other countries with a Christian influence, where because of religion they may feel research on embryos is not O.K.”

And that differing red line is where the clash of east and west comes into play.  Ethicists say China needs to line up with universal ethical standards on such things, but some Chinese researchers assert that ethics need  to run in agreement with the culture in which they are applied.

Huso Yi, the director of research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Center for Bioethics, said, “Right now, human gene editing is the main thing,” and the Chinese “don’t want to be guided by Western people.”

So the troubling experiment passed muster because it wasn’t for “reproductive purposes.” The reasoning was that the embryos were slated for destruction anyway, so it wasn’t likened to playing with life as it might be with reproductive genetic engineering.

But of course it is playing with human life. The embryos were living and have developed; babies are alive today because of embryo adoption. The the idea that since the embryos are going to be destroyed anyhow, playing with 85 of them at a time is acceptable is abhorrent. China has already demonstrated a lack of regard for human life with its one-child policy and forced abortions. Now researchers are gaining approval to experiment with human embryos.  It then becomes hard to predict where the line will be drawn before researchers are in the lab playing with eye color, before they are in the lab playing God.

One researcher told the Times,  “The more technology we have, the more dangerous we are to ourselves and entire humankind.”

This experiment is only one egregious example of flinging life away to play with it in a lab.

Regardless of cultural differences between East and West, a life is a life in any region. It would behoove Chinese research governing authorities to do a double take before allowing more destruction of human life.

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