Imagine you’re having a child in the near future, and with the vast trove of gene-editing technologies that have surfaced, your doctors present a surprising proposition — they promise to customize hair, skin, and eye color, as well as eliminate any pathology, illness, or hereditary affliction that may infirm your baby. Moreover, and more controversially, they inquire if you wish to get rid of vision problems, obesity, mental disorders, or even hair loss. As you can discern, these realities thus present a fairly disquieting dilemma –is there an ethical duty behind using genetic modification to ensure a child’s success, or does such behavior engender a world in which imperfections are substandard, and inequality among humans becomes almost inherent and biological?
The concept of tuning gene-expression and manipulating base pairs has been around for a few years, and in January of 2013, the Zhang Lab published the first method to edit the genome of mouse and human cells using CRISPR, the revolutionary process making waves around the world. More specifically, CRISPR comes in two separate parts – an enzyme called Cas9 that cuts DNA, and a guiding RNA sequence that tells Cas9 where to do so. Something to keep in mind is that there are nearly 6 billion base pairs that make up the human genome, so the guide RNA can sometimes mislead Cas9 to sites that are a base or two off from the intended sequence. This can result in certain genes being modified when doing so was never the intention, but further developments in the tool are gradually preventing this reality.
Most recently, researchers in China have used CRISPR to repair mutations in human embryos that can cause heart disorders, and their work has incited much ethical controversy. Many think that gene editing in plants or mice is less unnatural than in humans, and while I believe such thinking is an insouciant dismissal of the natural world, I understand the concern – the impact of such science becomes tangible when it can affect your children or loved ones. Moreover, using CRISPR in humans is exclusively done through in-vitro fertilization; IVF is a precipitously expensive procedure, one that contrives a striking narrative in which the rich can ensure the biological superiority of their offspring, and the poor are put through the ringer. This doesn’t just mean that financially burdened families can’t choose the eye or skin color of their quickly arriving new-born — their difficulties preclude the elimination of genetic disease or illness. Clearly, the unsettling reality that pervades such technologies is evident when viewed within an often tell-all socioeconomic framework. To think that someone can be denied of CRISPR’s benefit because of an insurance policy or out-of-pocket premium is an unacceptable possibility — and one that deserves to challenged with truculent conviction.
Personally, I see the advent of genetic manipulation going one of two ways. The first, in a cycle of development that closely represents that of vaccination, is a progression where tools like CRISPR will become a ubiquity in excising genetic disease as a medical concern. In many ways, it’s our moral obligation to make this vision our reality; that being said, we must also mandate that insurance companies, hospitals, free clinics, and world governments feel the same way. This can’t be a benefit given to those willing to shell out a pretty penny, but rather an inherent advantage of healthcare in a civilized, advancing country. Granted, implementation will be excruciatingly hard; making an expensive, experimental technology ostensibly free is a hard ask of anyone, especially developing nations.
The second natural development of tools like CRISPR is far more harrowing. If you haven’t seen the film Gattaca, I highly recommend it – Andrew Niccol explores the same concept beautifully. He engineers a world in which designer babies are the standard, and those who weren’t privileged enough to undergo genetic enhancements are marginalized into a struggling, biologically inferior lower class. For a film made in 1997, Niccol got a striking amount right. So much so, in fact, that his work often comes up in research pieces or journals that seek to evince the ethical concerns of gene modification programs. We find ourselves at an incredibly dangerous tipping point, and with proper regulation, ethical practices, and a major stress on the individuality of human life, we’ll be just fine. I hope of a future where disease is nonexistent, and illnesses is as correctable as a mistaken stroke of lead on paper. I just pray my optimism doesn’t become jaded by broken agendas, unilateral greed, and sideways politics.