Human Gene Editing:
The End of Suffering, or the Beginning of a Genetic Caste System?

By Caroline Santoro


     As soon as gene-editing CRISPR-Cas9 was discovered in 2012, talk of “designer babies” permeated the science world. People began to imagine a society in which parents could not just prevent devastating genetic diseases and birth defects, but could also specify the physical and intellectual attributes of their children. Six years later, this futuristic talk has become today’s news — Chinese scientist He Jiankui claims to have edited CCR5, a gene that allows HIV infection (he alleges to have edited one embryo to be resistant and a twin that is not). Although his results have not been verified, Jiankui egregiously violated Chinese laws and global bioethical standards. Not only did he fail to obtain informed consent from the parents, but he performed a procedure with immense risks and no medical need.

     Regardless of whether Jiankui’s claims are true, their existence makes the ethical discussion of gene editing much more real and time sensitive. He has sparked practical conversations about regulation of IVF clinics and theoretical (but just as important) conversations about the future of gene editing. William Hurlbut, a Stanford bioethicist, explained the importance of this scandal perfectly when he said, “Now the door is open to this and will never close again. It’s like a hinge of history.”

     Although CRISPR-Cas9 is currently too new and imprecise to begin editing human embryos effectively, one day gene editing could be a real solution to prevent suffering from genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. However, those same techniques could one day open the door to genetic enhancement for parents looking to make their future children more intelligent, athletic, and attractive. Using gene editing technology for genetic enhancement, an unnecessary and surely expensive practice, has the potential to create a socioeconomic divide exponentially more dramatic than it is today. Wealth already gives a proven leg up in society — what if wealthy children were at an advantage all the way down to their DNA?  Since people increasingly select mates with similar levels of education and wealth, genetically enhanced adults are likely to seek out or even restrict their choice of mates to others similarly enhanced. Over time, their genetic and financial advantages could widen into a chasm that results into two vastly different societies and a world almost unrecognizable to ours today. Is this a world that we could, or even should, prevent? Or would it simply join a long list of existing wealth-dependent advantages, including braces, tutoring, and travel sports programs?




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