The Washington Post reports that the FDA has begun reviewing a process of canceling out genetically inherited diseases by creating embryos with three genetic parents. While the article explains the science and the history of the process quite well, it fails to go into detail about the “ethical issues” posed by such a process, though this term is mentioned frequently. What are the ethical issues posed by such a process? Designer babies seem to be the main concern here, and while loss of genetic diversity is troubling, the process under review is only meant to eliminate the possibility of disease being passed on, such that the process need not end in designer babies, and as slippery slope arguments are wanting, we should put this argument aside as not the main ethical concern.
The interesting ethical issue here, I think, is whether potential but yet unknown harms provide a stronger reason against an action than potential and probable benefits do as a reason for that action. As W.D. Ross and others have noted, the duty to prevent harm is more stringent than the duty to create benefits, and for this reason, we might think that we should err on the side of caution and not go forward with the process due to potential harmful mutations in future generations.
But of course, the benefit to be gained is the removal of harm – the potential removal of a harmful disease or condition. Thus, it is not simply the weighing of a duty to prevent harm against a duty to promote well-being, but the weighing of a duty to prevent harm against a duty to prevent harm. Now we are weighing the prevention of a potential harm in the distant future against the prevention of harms in the near future. Our attention should not be drawn to differences in occurrence, after all, our generation and the potentially impacted future generations are just as deserving of being free from harm. The important difference is that it is reasonable to assume, given testing on primates, that the process under review will likely remove harms, whereas it is very much uncertain whether the process will cause long-term harms such that not using the process will prevent harm. Given this, we should consider going forward with the process.
The crucial question here is what exactly is the prevention of disease? Is it the removal of harm, or the creation of well-being? The answer to this question has a direct impact on the answer to our questions regarding the ethicality of such a process. As disease is a harm, the prevention of disease is the prevention of harm. Nevertheless, those that are worried about the “naturalness” of such a process might consider the prevention of disease through this process a creation of well-being, because diseases are the natural order of things, such that to remove them is to go above and beyond the claims of man, showing him beneficence.
So there is room for debate as to whether this process is the prevention of harm or the creation of benefit. But this is a question about the nature of the action, not about what we ought to do, such that we can see that this moral disagreement is caused by disagreement about the non-moral fact of whether the action is the prevention of harm or creation of benefit, not whether we ought to prevent harm or create benefit. Thus, those anti-realists who posit that there wouldn’t be moral disagreements if there were objective truths about morality (the argument from disagreement) can be answered by our observation that there can be moral disagreements with objective moral facts if there is disagreement on the non-moral facts of the case.