THE BLOG

Bringing up Designer Babies

05/14/2015 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

I like to think that I was a designer baby -- that my mother consciously searched for a Jewish man during her bachelorette days, hoping her children would have full heads of hair and study for fun. Likewise, I imagine my dad sought out a woman of Mexican heritage in hopes that he would remain the tallest one in the family and his children would not inherit his lactose intolerance.

But their plan backfired and my sister and I inherited many undesirable traits, the most exciting of which are early onset puberty and thick hair on our bodies.

I wonder what my parents would have chosen had they been able to design my sister and me from scratch. Would they have taken away my sister's asthma, all but eliminating her yearly ordeal spring sports at the YMCA? Would they have ensured that I had stellar eyesight? Made me less stubborn?

The technology to alter traits of individuals exists. CRISPR is a gene editing technology that scientists can use to replace defective parts of the DNA sequence with healthy ones. Tampering with DNA can erase the faulty genes causing debilitating diseases. Gene therapy to eliminate a particular disease in germline cells ensures this disease is not passed on to future offspring. Germline cells, unlike somatic cells, pass on their genetic material. By manipulating germline cells, hereditary diseases could be virtually eliminated. Imagine a world without cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease.

We must realize that this is the goal of modern medicine: preventative as well as prescriptive care. Only the evil among us would wish for the continuation of debilitating and life-threatening maladies if there were a real way to rid these from the human experience. But this technology opens a floodgate of possibilities. Jennifer Doudna, a scientist who discovered how to edit genes using CRISPR, is worried. Last January, Doudna led a group of scientists, legal, and ethical experts in discussion on the implications of using the CRISPR system in germline cells, noting, "The issue is especially human germline editing and the appreciation that this is now a capability in everyone's hands." This capability is transferable to more innocuous traits as well.

Tailor-making children to suit parents' desires is a dangerous game. Although the CRISPR system is not perfect, the possibility of babies who are made-to-order creeps closer and closer each year. Guoping Feng, a neurobiologist at MIT, predicts gene-edited humans are only "10 to 20 years away." Of course, this timeline only applies to those who can afford the expense of choosing their children's traits, which may eventually include intelligence levels.

Unlike other Western countries, the United States has not banned germline engineering. This technology is not viewed in a particularly favorable light, but proponents exist in the scientific community. It is easy to say that tampering with genes to produce a person with particular traits is unethical. But once this technology is perfected, propagating mediocre children could be considered unethical as well. Is it the human race's duty to ensure its prosperity by engineering the smartest people? Or should we leave our intelligence levels up to the gods and gamble with our fate?