US Congress Wants FDA to Consult Religious Experts and Ban Human Embryo Genetic Modification


Crystal_Structure_of_Cas9_in_Complex_with_Guide_RNA_and_Target_DNAThe US Congress recently held its first hearing on human germline genetic modification.

The meeting included CRISPR-Cas9 pioneer Jennifer Doudna (see video here) on the panel. See image of Cas9 structure from Wikipedia. CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful, strikingly efficient tool for genetic engineering of cells and whole organisms.

Now Republican congressional leaders have included a provision in the current spending bill that would block editing of viable human embryos and could interfere with important research.

Concern over a possible reactive move by Congress on human embryo editing has been building so this was not exactly a shock, but is still a concern. The National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine (IOM) have taken on the task of holding a meeting more broadly on the issue of heritable human genetic modification and issuing a report.

According to multiple sources including a great new piece in Nature News by Sara Reardonthe US House would also require the US FDA to consult religious “experts” as it weighs three-person IVF, a form of human genetic modification intended to prevent genetic mitochondrial diseases. Three-person IVF has been approved in the UK, but not in the US due at least in part to unresolved safety concerns. I have been one of the main scientists openly questioning whether three-person IVF is ready for prime time because of limited relevant pre-clinical data.

From Reardon’s article:

“The House legislation calls for another layer of review. It would direct the FDA to establish “an independent panel of experts, including those from faith-based institutions with expertise on bioethics and faith-based medical associations” to review the IOM report once released.”

I am concerned over the possibility of heritable human genetic modification including the future possibility of efforts at human enhancement. However, requiring that religious figures in a sense instruct the FDA or the biomedical community is the wrong way to go.

I’m also not a fan of the idea of legislation restricting the use of genetic modification technology. So I’m with Hank Greely of Stanford who said, “This step seems dumb…”.

To me the best approach instead would be a moratorium imposed promptly by the scientific community specifically on clinical use of human germline modification technology, while allowing in vitro research to occur on a limited basis with careful bioethics training, transparency, and institutional oversight (see my ABCD plan). Could someone violate such a moratorium? Of course that is possible, but a moratorium would at least reduce that risk and importantly serve to place any rogue efforts into an appropriate context both for the scientific community itself and the public.


  1. Let’s consider some of the great religious interventions in science from the past:
    (1) Severus, condemned by Catholics, he escaped only to be burned at the stake by Protestants for publishing a manuscript which included the discovery of pulmonary circulation.
    (2) Giordano Bruno burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. Bruno dared to suggest that stars are suns with exoplanets.
    (3) Galileo, tortured and sentenced to prison for the rest of his life (9 years) for writing a manuscript that rejected the nonsensical imaginings of Aristotle in favour of beginning a scientifically sound mechanics — upon which all of the modern world is founded (with the possible exception of the American Congress). Of course, Galileo was forced to recant some of his work, otherwise he would also have been burned at the stake.

    Religion has neither intellectual nor moral credentials.

  2. I think religious leaders should be part of the conversation, but as the issues are complex, the discussion needs to go beyond polarization. We need to find ways for various disciplines to inform one another to give rise to a more intelligent way forward. Unfortunately, our congress seems to be locked in some blame debate that serves no one in the long run and I suspect the call for religious leaders to instruct the FDA is more of the same.

  3. Many people would rely upon their religious beliefs to decide whether or not they would use gene editing technologies, even if they were readily and cheaply available. Thus, at least considering the religious stances out there is a wise idea, in my opinion. I actually abandoned embryonic stem cell research many years ago as I didn’t want to create a life-saving therapeutic approach that many wouldn’t ever use based on their religious and ethical beliefs.

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