Designing Methuselah: an ethical argument against germline genetic modification to prolong human longevity

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Precise editing of the human germline has been considered an unlikely and an unethical proposition. Recently, tools to edit the human germline have been developed and it is now a realistic prospect. Consequently, the ethical arguments around prohibiting human genome editing need to be re-evaluated. It is anticipatable that using it to eradicate disease-causing mutations will be acceptable if clinical risks can be shown to be sufficiently low. Some go further and advocate that genetically ‘enhancing’ humans will also be permissible. Here I argue that there are instances where human germline editing should be prohibited because harms can be anticipated from the results of studies of aspects of human psychology. The example I have chosen to illustrate this argument is prolongation of the human lifespan. Cohort and longitudinal studies demonstrate that a vital ingredient of human contentment and health is being integrated into a cohort of similarly aged people and experiencing life's trials and tribulations contemporaneously. A person genetically engineered to live longer than their peers will experience the loss of their cohort and many from the generation following them—an established risk factor for discontentment and ill health. Since germline genome editing precludes obtaining the consent of the individual in question, and that such a predictable harm will be commonly encountered, it is questionable that human germline editing to extend lifespan can ever be considered an ethical practice.

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