When a group of scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in China announced in April 2015 that they’d edited the genes of human embryos, the world was shocked. We knew that the gene editing tools that would make it possible to change human DNA and even create “designer babies” existed, but until then, no one had tested them on human embryos.
One of the biggest shocks for many researchers was actually that the first research team to do this work did it without using the most accurate, latest tools — some researchers felt they could have done that same work more successfully. Some groups began advocating for the right to conduct similar experiments, and one group from London’s Francis Crick Institute requested permission to work with human embryos.
Many countries have outright bans on editing human embryos, but in other cases, the rules aren’t so clearly defined. Even when they are, those rules are rarely legally binding.
In 2014, Motoko Araki and Tetsuya Ishii of Hokkaido University in Japan analysed the rules on human embryo editing in 39 countries around the world. Here’s what they found:
They found that 29 countries (in red above) had an outright legal ban on genetic editing.
In China, India, Japan, and Ireland, bans existed but didn’t necessarily have legal enforcement mechanisms behind them. In the case of China, the group who announced their famous results in April was able to get permission to work with non-viable embryos that could never have been brought to term; that’s how they worked within China’s guidelines.
The authors call the US a special case, where the NIH has a (recently re-iterated) moratorium on this research. Other countries have ambiguous rules.
Editing the genes of an embryo is not enough to create a designer baby. The embryo would need to be viable, and working with viable embryos — one that can actually develop into babies — is a whole new step that many countries would not allow.
But if someone were to do this work on viable embryos, implant them in a hospitable womb in a fertility clinic, and let them be carried to term, that would effectively create a person with genetically modified DNA that they’d then be able to pass on.
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