Scientists have been exploring what’s known as gene editing for years, but the idea of editing a baby’s genes so that they inherit the best possible traits is considered extremely controversial in the medical community. Advocates say this technology could be used to prevent genetic diseases like cancer by essentially switching out a part of a person’s DNA, but opponents say it could exacerbate existing health inequalities.
What is Gene Editing?
Researchers have been studying ways to edit a person’s DNA for years. This technology first came around towards the end of the 20th Century, but things quickly heated up in 2009 when researchers first invented the technology known as CRISPR, which made it much cheaper and easier to edit a person’s genes. It’s also considered more accurate than previous methods, giving scientists the freedom to select which parts of the DNA they want to replace, edit, or remove.
Implanting a genetically modified human embryo is illegal in the U.S. and throughout Europe, so we’re still a long way off from so-called “designer babies”. But scientists can use this technology to research genetic diseases and how they spread from one generation to the next, even though these projects cannot receive public funding.
The Ethics of Picking and Choosing Genes
Over last ten-plus years, medical experts have been debating the ethics of CRISPR and its implications for the future of human health. Many are worried that gene editing could alter our definition of humanity. Privileged individuals and societies may get access to certain genes that lead to preferred physical and mental traits, leading to so-called super-humans, while low-income individuals suffer from preventable diseases and less-than-ideal traits.
But a groundbreaking report from the U.K.’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB) says this technology could be “morally acceptable” as long as it doesn’t increase existing inequalities. It also said individuals could use CRISPR to hypothetically choose certain traits for their unborn child if it meets strict ethical and regulatory tests.
The group specializes in determining the ethical realities of emerging technologies. It called on the U.K. government to conduct national surveys on gene editing to get a sense of public opinion.
Karen Yeung, chair of the NCB report group, and law and ethics expert at the University of Birmingham, said recent advances like CRISPR could have “profound consequences [which] affect the genetic make-up of society”.
“There was an enormous range of views [within the NCB], including that we should not do this as to do this would be to take a step humanity should not take,” Prof Yeung said. “We thought quite hard about this and came to the view that, in and of itself, intervening in the heritable genome would not be morally objectionable.”
Action on Two Fronts
The NCB added that in order for this technology to be used it must pass two tests.
One, researchers must ensure that any changes must ultimately benefit the resulting person whose DNA is being edited and their descendants. Clearly, preventing genetic disease would be considered a benefit, but some say altering genes that affect physical traits like height and intelligence may be a step too far.
Two, scientists must realize and consider how these changes would affect the human species at large, including the possible distinction between those that have had their DNA altered and those that have not.
Gene editing remains a uniquely contentious subject in health and medicine. CRISPR has made designer babies a very real possibility, but researchers still have time to sort through the ethics.
As Leach Scully, one of the report’s authors from the Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre at Newcastle University, put it, “It’s not often that you’re in a position where you can see a development like that coming towards you, and have enough time to think very carefully about how to go ahead with it – or not.”
The possibility of creating a genetically modified human being remains unclear. Officials have also questioned the safety of this technology, including the possibility that gene editing could increase a person’s risk of cancer and other genetic disease.
The group Don’t Screen Us Out has been advocating against the use of diagnostic and screening technologies that identify traits that often lead to diseases like autism and Down’s syndrome. They report that routine pregnancy testing for Down’s syndrome has led to 90% of pregnancies diagnosed with the condition being terminated.
“Public health ethics are clearly not keeping pace with the development of new technologies, in fact, they haven’t even been at the races,” a spokesperson for the group recently told The Independent.
The ethics behind CRISPR remain to be seen, but if this technology makes its way into the mainstream, it should be used to benefit all of humankind, not just the privileged few.