The Ethics of Germline Editing
As part of his master of arts in philosophy at McMaster University, Enzo Guerra ’19 is asking critical, faith-driven questions about the daunting and bizarre nature of human genome editing.
2 min. read
November 6, 2020

A degree in philosophy wasn’t Enzo Guerra’s first choice. In fact, it was the furthest thing from his mind during the first-year introduction to philosophy course at Redeemer. “Back then, I wasn’t really good [at philosophy],” he says. “I remember this one time we were doing in-class debates, and it was disastrous on my part. People didn’t know what I was saying and I didn’t know what I was saying, so I got a lot of blank stares. I felt pretty humbled.”

Despite this setback, Guerra was still fascinated by what he describes as the “worthwhile and meaningful pursuit of life’s biggest questions.” So much so that he’s now completing a master of arts in philosophy at McMaster University. Last fall, he was awarded the Joseph Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship to aid his thesis research on the ethical implications of human genome editing. Guerra’s focus is on the highly controversial work of Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who, in 2018, claimed to have created the first genetically modified babies through Germline Gene Editing (GGE). Because this method is internationally prohibited, Jiankui lost his university teaching position, paid a large fine and is serving a prison sentence.

“Essentially, he made changes to their genome which are going to be passed on to future offspring. This quickly becomes ethically contentious for a few reasons,” explains Guerra. “It brings up the issue of eugenics, a popular method in the 20th century. Depending on the intended changes, the person’s genes are altered to filter out qualities that are deemed undesirable, such as a certain disability. There’s the additional possibility of biohacking, which allows someone to edit an existing pathogen or create a synthetic one to wreak havoc. We also have to question GGE’s accessibility and whether or not it will widen the inequality we already see in society. Basically, my research is asking what germline edits, if any, are morally permissible.”

While delving into such complex moral issues is definitely daunting, Guerra credits Redeemer for giving him the wisdom and perspective to do so.

“During my time at Redeemer, I became increasingly convinced of some sort of ethical objectivism. That allowed me to see how powerful and transformative justice, love, peace and human dignity are for the world.

“During my time at Redeemer, I became increasingly convinced of some sort of ethical objectivism. That allowed me to see how powerful and transformative justice, love, peace and human dignity are for the world. These principles, which I came to see as qualities one should strive to live by, inform the way I approach ethical issues.”

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