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expert reaction to article on human germline editing

Prof Kevin Smith, Abertay University, set out his views on the ethics of human genome editing in a piece published in the journal Bioethics. 


Professor Joyce Harper, Head of Research Department of Reproductive Health, UCL Institute for Women’s Health, said:

“I have to disagree with Dr Smith’s view that the ‘risks of gene editing are now low enough to justify its use with human embryos’. For the first time in our history, this technology will allow us to alter the genome of our future children. I do not believe that there are adequate experiments that will ‘prove’ that this technology is safe. So we need to tread carefully. As Dr Smith says, preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) is a long standing technology that can eliminate genetic disease from families. There are very few cases where PGT will not be possible and in my decades of working on PGT, I have never come across a family with such a problem. Genome editing will be useful in these cases, but they are incredibly rare. I do agree that genome editing ‘could kick-start a revolution in human genetic modification’ and as we said in the Nuffield report, before this day arrives we need public debate and legislation to ensure we have carefully thought this through.”


Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), said:

“Kevin Smith’s “utilitarian” proposal is thought-provoking but flawed. While it is true that we should consider the possible future benefits of establishing pregnancies using genome-edited embryos, it is equally true that we should consider the risks.

“These risks need to be carefully assessed, which is why there are currently important initiatives – one by the World Health Organisation, another conducted jointly by the USA’s National Academies and the UK’s Royal Society – working to establish the standards that would need to be met, before this use of genome editing technology might be justified.

“No less importantly, there are the views of the public to consider. Smith concedes in his paper that “a modest delay might offer the pragmatic benefit of allowing public trust to build”, but this takes for granted that the public will – given sufficient time – arrive at a similar view to him. In actual fact, the public should be credited with the ability – and given the opportunity – to form its own opinion of whether, and in what circumstances, this technology should be used.

 “Lessons should be learned from the mistakes that were made last year, by the Chinese scientist who was responsible for the world’s first genome-edited babies. If this technology is to be put to similar use in future, then far higher scientific and ethical standards need to be met.”


‘Time to start intervening in the human germline? A utilitarian perspective’ by Kevin Smith was published in Bioethics at 00:01 UK time on Tuesday 19th November. 

DOI: Bioethics. 2019;00:1–15.


Declared interests

Sarah Norcross:  PET is a charity that works to improve choices for people with infertility and genetic conditions.

None others received 

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