The age of human gene editing has arrived.
As an avid sci-fi fan, I love futuristic movies and novels with cool technology, and as a kid watching Star Wars and Back to the Future, I’d wonder if we’d ever see things such as flying cars, hoverboards, laser guns, artificial intelligence or genetically superior humans in my lifetime.
Well, today’s science has achieved each of this in various capacities, and it’s only a matter of time before they are refined and become as pervasive as cell phones.
Now, it’s one thing to have flying cars replace land vehicles, but quite another to edit human genes so that a newborn child is superior to naturally conceived children in nearly every way. The movie Gattaca was another favorite of mine, and it sought shed light on the ethics of bioengineering human beings. The character played by Jude Law was a genetically modified human, and the movie predicts that one day “our DNA will determine everything about us”, and a single drop of blood “determines where you can work, who you should marry, what you’re capable of achieving… a society where success is determined by science.”
Indeed, a major scientific breakthrough just took place when scientists succeeded in altering the genes of a human embryo in order to repair a genetic heart condition. This was accomplished via CRISPR-Cas9 technology (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which was considered the breakthrough of the year in 2015, and is now demonstrated to be a safe technique that can manipulate individual genes.
That’s awesome, right? While there’s still a long way to go, we now have the potential to prevent all kinds of diseases: cancer, blindness, HIV, sickle-cell anemia, heart disease, and many others. Seriously, cancer sucks, and I know too many people who’ve had it or been affected by it, and I’d love to see it go away. But there’s so much more to gene editing that we need to be aware of and take into consideration.
For a time, many people had been opposed to gene editing because it couldn’t be done safely, without harming the embryo and causing other unintended consequences. It would be unethical to cause greater mutations than would have otherwise occurred through natural processes. And that’s why it was banned in America. But, even as the process becomes safer, and regulations change, there are many other ethical and pragmatic implications to consider.
Parents will be able to select the gender of their child, their height, hair and eye color, their physical and athletic abilities, intelligence, life-span, and so on. Countries could one day raise soldiers best suited for war, combat and tactics. Some of the most demanding jobs will only be available to those who are genetically equipped to do so. Every Olympic athlete will routinely break the records held by Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.
Yes, children will be healthier, and we can eliminate many of the 10,000 medical conditions we know of, but who will the parents be, and who will raise and have custody of these designer babies? By doing any of this, are we playing God? If we can “create” such life, do we have a right to end that life if we so choose? And should we make this technology available to everyone as a fundamental right and as part of our healthcare packages, or be funded by tax-payers? How will a community of genetically superior people treat those who are not, and how will natural born people treat those who have been altered? Will there be future bias and prejudice? And what if a genetically altered fetus or newborn baby is discovered to have an unexpected condition, or the process wasn’t successful, can its life be ended?
Some of the answers may be disturbing, especially in foreign countries with little regulation, or where dictators can do as they please, or even in our own country- where politics shape morality. And in only a few short generations, we’re looking at a whole new gene pool being circulated around the world.
What other ethical dilemmas could we see?
Obviously, we’re going to need some well-thought regulations. There have already been international summits held on gene editing, and we’ll need more of this. As I said, I love the idea of ending many diseases, but we need to be prepared for unintended consequences, and we’ll need to face the reality that other countries will not be so concerned about ethics and consequences.
In America, I believe parents should have full custody of their children, and they should be able to determine what’s best for their children. There should be limited government involvement, and I hope that turns out to be the case. It will certainly be interesting to see how this technology- and many other advances- change our lives in the very near future.