Genetically modifying humans: is it ethical?
April 8, 2019
art by Tiffany Qian
Gene editing is not ethical and shouldn’t be used
As biomedical engineering and technology become more prominent within society, the idea of changing the very DNA that forms the basis for all life is something much more attainable than ever before. Although gene editing technology can potentially prevent genetic diseases, it also raises ethical questions about editing DNA for non-health related reasons.
After all, since this technology plays with genetics, a child’s attractiveness and athleticism are all fair game for the parent to modify. Even for something as imperative as intelligence, genetics “account for about half of all differences in intelligence among people,” according to Scientific American. While at face value these seem to be positive modifications, enabling people to change these once predetermined traits exacerbates society’s view on perfection and economic inequality all while not guaranteeing the patient’s safety.
As a whole, society has a narrow and unforgiving outlook on what is considered to be desirable. Spread widely across the media, certain types of physical appearances are celebrated and desired more than others. When we read and think about success, traits of high intelligence and athleticism are hard to miss. If people are presented with the opportunity to make their future child better conform to society’s picture of desirability and/or have a greater possibility for success, who wouldn’t take it? But, this is the heart of the problem. Once people start genetically modifying babies and begin viewing once predetermined traits to be attainable through materialist means, we will feed into society’s already strict views on desirability, allowing it to grow much more narrow.
Diversity will no longer be seen as something to be celebrated and might even decrease. On a genetic level, less gene diversity could harm humanity’s ability to survive during great disasters and eventually adapt to new environmental conditions over generations, according to Lumen Learning. Disability will be shunned even more and regarded as something trivial and “fixable.”
The beauty of not being able to achieve perfection according to society’s standards is that one learns acceptance and feels motivated to test the boundaries of what is desirable. We learn that we don’t need to be seen as perfect to live life the way we wanted, that perseverance and hard work triumph over the traits we were born with. Being imperfect is the exact gift that allows us to understand how perfection is unattainable, and lets us appreciate the world through different lenses not governed by how society thinks we should be.
On the flip side, people will argue that genetic modification can save people and prevent genetic diseases. However, with current technology, the cost of these procedures is extremely high and unrealistic. Take CRISPR, a new and powerful gene editing tool, as an example. Recently, a man in China claimed that he had successfully created twins who were genetically modified using CRISPR. But, the cost for CRISPR treatment right now sits at around $500,000 to $1.5 million, according to Independent.
Compared to the median annual income for Americans sitting at around 60,000 dollars, according to the US Census Bureau, it becomes quite clear that this method of preventing or fixing genetic diseases is out of the question for many people living in the United States.
Due to its high costs, genetic modification technology can even exacerbate the current wealth inequality between the nation’s top one percent and everyone else. For people who are currently in poverty, not only are their children not receiving quality education, but they will now have to compete with genetically modified humans whose intelligence or athleticism could have been boosted artificially. For celebrities whose appearances can sometimes determine whether or not they can have lasting fame, people who have been genetically modified to be more attractive will have an advantage. Even for the middle class, whose income ranges from $26,000 to $78,000, according to CNBC, hundred thousands to million dollar procedures is not affordable.
Therefore, the technology that is supposed to help the people is actually something that only a select few can benefit from. From the cost perspective alone, before anyone is able to praise the effectiveness and helpfulness of genetic modification technology, engineers and scientists need to figure out ways to lower the costs for these treatments or else they are not helping society the way they are meant to.
Additionally, genetic modification technology is not safe to use. According to New Scientist, there is an increased risk for cancer for patients who have undergone CRISPR treatment. Therefore, even if the scientists can use genetic modification technology to help prevent diseases, it does not necessarily mean that in the future the patients wouldn’t be harmed or killed by the technology that was once supposed to help them.
Coupled with the issue relating its cost, genetic editing is just not a viable option for many people. Even when these problems are solved, there still remains the matter of how this technology feeds and perpetuates society’s relentless categorization of perfection and desirability. Before we celebrate the “bigger picture” of all the wonders of genetic manipulation can bring to society, we cannot forget about its harms and consequences.
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Gene editing is ethical and should be used
This past November, a Chinese researcher revealed to the world the birth of a pair of first-of-their-kind genetically engineered twin girls, according to the Associated Press. The researcher, He Jiankui, was studying the possibility of creating a child who would be immune to the disease HIV. His work, among others, shows that the the future of modifying human genes in any number of ways appears promising and may not remain merely the work of science fiction writers for long.
Currently, gene editing and using CRISPR, a tool that allows researchers to easily edit DNA sequences, are still infantile and in experimental phases. According to a report from Vox, while CRISPR’s history goes all the way back to 1987 Japan, only in the past decade has CRISPR been used on human cells. A landmark paper showing how CRISPR could be used to cut the genome at any spot desired was published in 2012. This paper would pave the way for future innovations in genetic engineering. CRISPR technology is far from perfect, and great amounts of further testing are obviously required before it can be used safely.
Despite all of this, let us look into the future. Soon gene editing and CRISPR could be successful, as safe as any other medicine, and regulated so that only qualified experts are working with gene editing. At this point is where the ethical quandary resides: at what point does genetic engineering go too far? Do we use it only to prevent genetic diseases? To cure diseases? Do we allow parents to choose specific traits for their children to possess, similar to the “designer babies” that get thrown around in the media so often?
The future of using genetic engineering as a remedy for genetic disease looks bright. According to TIME, researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov used CRISPR to splice out a mutated gene that would cause a heart condition in more than 50 single cell embryos at a success rate of 72%. In another case, according to The Guardian, a team of researchers showed that muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes the degradation and loss of muscles over time, could be overcome in mice using genetic engineering to boost a second gene which would increase the production of a protein that could counteract the effects of the disease. And let us not forget He Jiankui’s research; while it remains admittedly unreviewed, it does include the birth of two twins and a second pregnancy where the children are reportedly immune to HIV by way of CRISPR.
These are just some of the examples of real applications for genetic engineering that do not carry with them the stigma of things like engineering for aesthetics do. Real solutions to genetic diseases that up until now, may have been life-threatening or completely debilitating to those that possess them. If we are able to prevent these diseases from happening, then why shouldn’t we?
If the dystopian future depicted so often by the media surrounding genetic engineering and designer babies comes to fruition, the decision as to what extent genetic engineering should be allowed should remain fully up to the individual and the free market that will provide the services to engineer those children. As long as those procedures being carried out live within the confines of what is regulated and safe, the ethical decision of going through with genetic engineering or not should be left up to the consumer. Any parent should be able to decide to what extent their child will be genetically engineered. This is the free market approach to the ethical dilemma.
Improved intelligence, improved athleticism, and improved physical beauty all remain open possibilities for the future of genetic engineering. Why should we as a society prevent these great possibilities from becoming a reality? If these technologies become a product that can be marketed and sold, if there are consumers that would like to purchase and use them, then let it be. If this is truly a technology that the people don’t want to see being able to be used, then in the free market, the business providing the technology will fail.
The free market is a form of democracy; just like voting, members of the democracy purchase what they would like to use and those things that they purchase succeed and thrive. In this case, leaving it up to consumers to decide if they would like to see these technologies and genetic engineering on humans thrive or fail means that it’s not up to a group of scientists in a locked room who have their view on the world and ethics. It is the combined view of everyone in the economy that determined whether or not genetic engineering on humans is permissible.
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