CRISPR is ethical when it is not used on embryos
Informed consent is an essential component of ethical medical treatments. Physicians ought to communicate with patients about the patient’s diagnosis, the possible treatments for that diagnosis, the expected benefits and risks of different treatments, and the recovery process. After the patient understands all of those aspects of their medical condition and the possible treatments, then the patient can be expected to make a responsible decision about how they would like to proceed. If a patient is not properly informed, they may make a decision that they regret, a decision that they realize was unnecessary, or a decision that results in unexpected negative consequences. Thus, to ensure that a medical treatment is ethical, a patient must be thoroughly informed and must give consent based on that information. CRISPR can be used on embryos and adults. Embryos obviously cannot be informed and cannot consent to the use of CRISPR. Using CRISPR on an embryo would absolutely change the course of that person’s life (if they are born). While scientists certainly hope that it would be for the better, we still don’t know much about the possible side effects and risks of using CRISPR on human embryos. Three recent studies (as of 2020) have shown that there can be significant unwanted changes in human genome embryos after CRISPR gene editing. The issue is that the technology is not perfectly precise; as it snips off the part of the genome that carries the genetic mutation (such as blindness or heart disease), it also snips off some of the genome surrounding the mutation. Since there are chances that CRISPR use could result in unwanted changes, there is a chance that a person who was genetically edited as an embryo could endure suffering as a result of a medical treatment which they never consented to. Thus, since embryos cannot consent and since there is sufficient evidence to suggest that there could be unwanted consequences of CRISPR, CRISPR should not be used on embryos.
We don’t ask babies if we should save their lives when they present with a life-threatening condition, even if that intervention may have a significant impact on their life. Instead, physicians present the parent/s with the relevant information and the parent/s make/s an informed decision on the next course of action. Informed consent from the parent/s, as in health decisions made for babies and children, is sufficient for use of CRISPR on embryos. Even though there could be consequences, if there is a chance that the procedure could have a positive impact on the baby’s health, then it is ethical to try that procedure.