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Hastings Center News

Is it Ethical to Genetically Edit Sports Animals?

Breeders have worked for centuries to produce animals, such as greyhounds or racehorses, with traits for peak sport performance. Today, gene editing technologies such as CRISPR could accomplish in one generation what used to take decades: the creation of faster, stronger, or more resilient sports animals. Some animal sports enthusiasts believe that gene editing could even improve animal well-being, such as dulling their sensation of pain. Could gene editing be used to improve animal welfare?

That’s unlikely, write Hastings Center research scholar Carolyn P. Neuhaus and Brendan Parent, of New York University, in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. While gene editing could in principle be used to enhance animal welfare, it most likely would be used to perpetuate, if not exacerbate, existing abuses.  “Pursing the promise of genetic engineering to achieve specific desirable sport traits could further objectify sport animals as mere equipment,” the authors write.

In addition, the effectiveness of CRISPR is far from proven. And the genetic basis for most beneficial sport traits is influenced by many different genes and environmental factors, most of which are currently unknown. Using CRISPR to attempt to create “super” animal athletes could lead to the death or abandonment of many animals who have unforeseen complications or undesirable traits.

“We think it is unlikely that gene editing will be used in ways that, in practice, protect and respect animals’ interests,” the authors write. “If gene editing were incorporated into animal breeding, we would hope that animal protections are simultaneously strengthened to prevent abuse.”

The article appeared in a special section of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics that contained proceedings of  “Genome Editing: Biomedical and Ethical Perspectives,” an international conference cosponsored by The Hastings Center in Belgrade in 2017.