- Morgan Robinson
The Ethics of Genetic Manipulation and Designer Babies
Imagine a world in which humans could manipulate embryo DNA to prevent disease. Every parent could guarantee that their child would be born as healthy as possible. While it may sound too good to be true, recent genetic technology has turned this far-fetched idea into a reality and has sparked debate regarding the ethics of this novel technology.
With tremendous development in the field of genetics, scientists have enhanced their knowledge on manipulation of the human genome. CRISPR/Cas9 is a new technology that edits genes by precisely cutting DNA and either disrupting, deleting, or correcting and inserting new DNA into a target position (1). In embryos, this technique could be used to target genes associated with disease and correct them in order to create a healthier embryo.
On the surface, this seems like a very positive idea. Yet, CRISPR also has the potential to be used for much more than just disease prevention. What if a parent could design a baby with a high IQ, a height of 6 '10, and perfect pitch? This child would have an advantage in school with their high IQ, in sports like basketball because of their height, and in music with their perfect pitch. Many scientists question the uses of this technology and the ways in which it challenges human ethics. For example, genetic modification has a clear potential to create a larger divide between social and economic classes, as access to CRISPR is not cheap. Therefore, the only people who could afford to create children without disease or with certain life advantages are those with extreme wealth.
Furthermore, we as a society dream about creating the “perfect offspring,” but who defines that? Should humans be allowed to create a generation of “superior” beings that are outstanding mathematicians, athletes, or musicians?
Gene editing has been in the news for quite some time, especially with the recent announcement of the first genetically designed babies in 2018. Jiankui He, a researcher from the Southern University of Science and Technology of China, announced at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong that he had created the world's first genetically altered babies (3). This caused an uproar because his research had not been approved and it brought to life many of the previously intangible problems with genetic testing on embryos; now these children could grow up as experiments and researchers would constantly want to monitor them to understand the implications of this groundbreaking technology. Many countries already have implemented more strict guidelines regulating human embryo experiments (3).
The future of gene editing has also been explored in the media through the creation of the 1997 movie “Gattaca.” Set in the U.S. in a futuristic society, “Gattaca” follows two brothers’ experiences in a world where people are defined by their genetic code. One brother is a designer baby, created in a petri dish, while the other was conceived naturally. Their lives differ in many ways, including access to certain types of jobs and one brother having more advantages and opportunities (4). The ‘designer’ brother works for the equivalent of NASA while his brother cannot work for them due to his genetic inferiority. The film explores the complex societal issues that this kind of technology creates and examines potential consequences of letting genetic modification control the future.
While there are clear drawbacks to embryo editing, there are also the previously stated advantages of eliminating certain life-threatening diseases. There is no clear answer on whether this technology will or should be utilized going forward, but it is something that should continue to be discussed, as it will likely play an important role in the near future.
Edited by: Reena Kagan
Graphic Designed by: Makayla Gorski