People around the world went wild when the news of genetically-modified babies first came out of China in 2018. A scientist had broken new ground, creating HIV-resistant twins by using CRISPR technology to copy-and-paste specific DNA and then implant the modified embryos into a woman’s womb for pregnancy.
Since knowledge of CRISPR technology has gone mainstream, the American public has grown increasingly divided over what could and should be allowed when it comes to outbidding the genetic lottery.
Pew Research recently found that Americans are still split on the societal impact of gene editing for babies to reduce the risk of disease. Yet, at the same time, the surveyed public is in strong support of using gene-editing technology for therapeutic needs.
No, superbabies aren’t necessarily coming to a maternity ward near you any time soon as it’s mostly illegal in America to implant an embryo that has undergone genetic editing. However, these recent survey results beg the question: what’s ethical in the designer baby discussion? And what’s in store for our future as the next generation of parents?
In the case of the Chinese babies who were modified to be HIV resistant, it was a huge risk but a success nonetheless. The ethical approach was lacking, however. The Chinese scientists allegedly ignored basic rules for research on human subjects, violated multiple norms of medical practices, and defied scientific conventions. Furthermore, when the scientists disabled the part of the gene for HIV, they inadvertently triggered a gene that increased susceptibility to influenza.
When the scientists disabled the HIV gene, they triggered a gene that increased susceptibility to influenza.
Well sure, it happened that way since the CRISPR process on human embryos was very much still in an experimental stage. Clearly, a lot of work would need to be done to get this technology to a less faulty level, but are we okay with playing God like that?
A great deal of loss went into creating those first two CRISPR babies. Whether you’re pro-abortion or pro-life, the fact that developing the science of designer babies requires a great deal of life destruction should be concerning. The number of studies that have gone into developing gene-editing technologies combined with the number of studies still needed for further research adds to the destruction of countless embryos.
Gene Therapy Began with Good Intentions
Gene therapy was developed to treat diseases by correcting underlying problems within our genes. The thought of various cancers or immune deficiency disorders being eradicated is certainly incredible. The possibilities span heritable blood disorders like sickle cell anemia, which would normally require the difficult task of finding a bone-marrow transplant donor, to Down Syndrome and more.
Some fatal diseases are so rare that extensive research on standard treatment could be out of the question indefinitely. However, trials using gene therapy have shown some promise. We could fundamentally shift the current trajectory we’re on as a society in terms of human health.
It’s notable that the larger population of support for gene-editing is for therapeutic purposes rather than prepping a perfect baby. 7 in 10 Americans surveyed by Pew Research favor gene editing to treat serious diseases. Why is that? A person who is being treated in their adulthood with gene therapy at least has the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out.
Shouldn’t It Be Okay If the Parents Say Yes?
An embryo being prepared to be implanted doesn’t have the choice if the parent wants to edit their DNA, whether that edit is to prevent disease, disorder, or for potential future cosmetic enhancements.
It’s one thing for your baby’s genetic profile to be scientifically engineered to prevent disease. It’s another thing to become more customizable in terms of height, skin tone, hair and eye color, voice, or overall disposition. With how rapid scientific developments are made nowadays, bioethicists have been calling for wider public debate over whether or not we should veer into territories like appearance and intelligence.
Where does the parents’ right to make choices for their child end and where does the child’s right to the integrity of their body begin? Yes, parents should care about having a healthy child who can thrive in the world, but should that care extend to changing their unborn child’s genes?
An embryo being prepared to be implanted doesn’t have the choice if the parent wants to edit their DNA.
Designer gene editing is not the only way for expecting parents to discriminate against their unborn child – this is already possible through genetic testing.
Genetic testing can be done to detect conditions like Down Syndrome and cystic fibrosis. In places where abortion is legal, parents can terminate that pregnancy if they’re unhappy with the genetic testing results. It’s worth noting that, in response, some states have banned abortions based on disability or sex.
For hopeful parents using in vitro fertilization (IVF), genetic disorder testing can assist in assessing their embryos' health prior to implantation. Since this technology has been around for a couple of decades, couples who might not even have trouble conceiving naturally have elected to use IVF to choose their baby’s sex or discriminate embryos based on immunological markers or disabilities.
Gene Editing Could Lead to Eugenics
There are endless benefits to genetically modifying embryos…in theory. In practice, there are endless ways to go against human rights principles that ensure equality, freedom, and dignity.
Ethically, using this technology for therapeutic purposes, to prevent serious conditions or diseases for consenting adults, doesn’t necessarily conflict with those human rights principles. When it begins to be considered for non-therapeutic, enhancement purposes is where you’ll find gene therapy losing popularity among Americans.
Some people have lamented that it’s a major leap toward eugenics, could perpetuate racism, and create a new age of caste systems. Others warn of the possibility of hostile regimes using CRISPR to create superbabies that grow up with superior muscle mass, lung capacity, and enhanced vision.
UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) even went as far as to say that making designer babies mainstream could “renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life.”
The DNA in genetically-modified embryos has been degraded, re-shuffled, broken, and even deleted.
Unfortunately, we really don’t know long-term effects or potential unintended consequences of implanting and then birthing a genetically modified embryo. Already, three scientific papers have identified that DNA in genetically-modified embryos has been degraded, re-shuffled, broken, and even deleted in some cases.
In response to CRISPR experiments plugging along despite these bumps in the road, some geneticists and researchers like Fyodor Urnov from the University of California, Berkeley, have given harsh warnings to scientists, saying, “This is a restraining order for all genome editors to stay the living daylights away from embryo editing.”
Gene therapy was intended to do one thing but further development has opened up Pandora's Box for potential problems. Where can we draw the line ethically if the technology is already on its way, and many Americans are in support of it being used for consenting patients?
Whether it's the sheer number of embryos needed to experiment on, the viability of the embryo once edited, or the genuine human rights violations that could potentially occur, it’s safe to say that it won’t get any easier for Americans to all get on the same page about designer gene-editing becoming a reality.
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