The ethics issue: Should we edit our children’s genomes? Tweaking genes to prevent your child dying early from a genetic disorder would be acceptable to most people, but we need to ask how far we should go
By Michael Le Page
Maximize human well-being vs Respect difference The thought of shaping future generations to fit some pre-imagined ideal of strength and beauty is one that should make us uncomfortable. Once a fashionable field of enquiry, the study of eugenics remains associated with some of the worst excesses of the 20th century, from forced sterilization to genocide. The lesson we might be tempted to draw from this is to let nature proceed unchecked, free from human meddling, and embrace the diversity it engenders.
But as ethically comforting as that sounds, deciding to do nothing is a decision in itself. We may like to think of humans as perfect, finished natural products that should not be interfered with, but nature’s creations are botch jobs, full of mindless mistakes. And evolution’s way of getting rid of the worst mistakes is to let children suffer horribly and die young.
In the interests of human well-being, then, should we head back down the slippery slope?
Actually, we already have. In most countries, it is already legal to shape the genomes of our children in various ways, from the abortion of fetuses with Down’s syndrome to the screening of embryos during IVF. Last year, the thin end of the wedge got that little bit thicker when the UK gave the go-ahead for what have been called “three-parent babies“, whose mitochondrial DNA is supplied by a third-party donor.
And now, thanks to the revolutionary genome-editing method known as CRISPR, we can directly edit the main genome of cells. In theory, CRISPR could be used to weed out the hundreds of mutations that make us more likely to suffer from disorders ranging from heart attacks to cancer to Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia, greatly improving the health of future generations.
From this perspective, it appears immoral not to genetically improve our descendants in every way we can. “There is a moral imperative,” says ethicist Julian Savulescu of the University of Oxford. “We would be horrified if a child went deaf because the parents refused drugs or surgery”. It is just as wrong, argues Savulescu, not to use gene editing once it is safe to do so.
Some see it very differently. Gene editing could be a way of “disappearing” certain types of people, suggested actress Kiruna Stamell, who has a rare form of dwarfism, at a recent debate. “By eradicating individuals with the condition, we are not beating the condition, we are not curing it.”
The issue is whether some states we regard as disabilities are just differences that are only a problem because the rest of society treats them as such. For Savulescu, conditions like deafness, blindness and paraplegia are disadvantageous no matter what. “If you can correct them, then you should.”
These are questions our descendants may grapple with for millennia to come. Barring scenarios in which we merge with machines to become superhuman cyborgs, it seems certain we will increasingly shape the genomes of our children. The only question is how.
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