The National Academy of Sciences' guidelines reflect this lack of distinction between cells and embryos. "That's very misleading because embryos are not germ line cells; they are new human beings," DiCamillo said.
For research on embryos to be ethical, he continued, therapies should be ordered to treating and benefitting that "that particular embryo, not just for garnering scientific knowledge or seeing what's going to happen." DiCamillo condemned policies that see destruction of embryonic persons as a back-up if research does not go as planned, as well as current policies that require destruction of embryos as standard procedure.
"We'd be in that area of very dangerous exploitation of human life and destruction of human life," he warned.
While the guidelines stumble across ethical roadblocks in regards to gamete and embryo research, the new report's rules regarding human enhancement are strong, DiCamillo said.
The ability to edit genomes could also be used for purposes other than medical treatment. A whole host of human traits could be enhanced or changed, such as vision, intelligence, or abilities. "There's any number of things that we could do to change the qualities of human beings themselves and make them, in a sense, super-humans … this is something that would also be an ethical problem on the horizon," he warned.
The existence of these gene altering therapies raises a question of how much modification and enhancement is permissible. DiCamillo praised the report for its recommendation "entirely against enhancement efforts and that these should not be allowed."
Currently, gene editing of both germ cells and somatic cells is legal in the United States, including on embryos. However, various US government institutions have policies in place prohibiting federal funding of such research efforts on germ cells and on embryos.
Furthermore, Food and Drug Administration regulations prohibit gene modification on viable human embryos – meaning that human embryos who receive gene modification are always destroyed.
The new guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences are significant because they lay a groundwork for future policy on human gene modification. They cautiously welcome the use of gene therapy on human embryos who are not later targeted for destruction after experimentation concludes.
DiCamillo recalled, however, that "they are merely guidelines – they are advice from the National Academy of the Sciences to the government in regards to future policy. This is not itself a new regulation or policy that the government has established."
The ethics of gene editing has been questioned for several years – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the issue in Dignitas personae, its 2008 instruction on certain bioethical questions. It has become more pressing recently, however, because a new technique known as CRISPR is easier to use and less expensive than previous means of gene editing.
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Although the ethical questions surrounding gene modification are many and there are a number of problematic applications of these technologies, DiCamillo cautioned Catholics not to renounce completely human gene modification: "We don't want to be hyper-reactive to the dangers. We have to realize there's a great deal of good that can be done here."
He pointed again to the kinds of modifications that can treat deadly genetic diseases and treatments that can be done in an ethical manner, with full respect to the dignity of human persons.
"We do need to be attentive to where the dangers are," he warned, "but we don't want to … automatically consider any kind of gene editing to be automatically a problem."
This article was originally published on CNA Feb. 23, 2017.