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Germline engineering: The moral challenges


  • H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr.

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Philosophy, Rice University, Houston, TX
    2. Department of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX
    • Center for Medical Ethics, Baylor College of Medicine, One Baylor Plaza, Houston, TX 77030.
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      Dr. H.T. Engelhardt, Jr. is a member of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy.


Not only is the use of germline genetic engineering likely in the long run to be inevitable, there are also no convincing secular moral grounds to forbid this technology in principle. Instead, the general secular moral constraints on the use of germline genetic engineering are either procedural or without predetermined content. Nor can one develop a coherent distinction between eliminating disease and enhancing human abilities. At best, in secular morality one can establish the principle to proceed with care, though the invocation of the precautionary principle argues as much in favor of the development of germline genetic engineering as against its use. Because germline genetic engineering, by eliminating certain genetic defects, offers the prospect of decreasing human suffering and decreasing the use of prenatal diagnosis and abortion, there is an obligation, all else being equal, to change the human genome. In a post-modern world, humans face the challenge of directing their own evolution, although they share no common understanding of human destiny and purpose. Such understandings, though available within religious contexts, are not available to secular bioethics. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.