Potential Advancements of Gene Editing

Photo Courtesy of engadget.com | CRISPR technology changes the way genes are passed down to offspring.

Emily Kowalik ‘18
Assistant Opinions Editor

The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine recently published a report concerning a revolutionary human genome editing technique which could reconfigure sperm and egg cells in a way that would produce offspring. Genetic engineering, particularly the newly developed CRISPR technology, is an amazing scientific advancement which allows scientists to engage in surgical stitching of the genetic code.

While potential uses of these techniques are tremendously exciting, the regulation of these technologies also pose serious ethical quandaries. Potential advancements in medical technology aside, the extent to which the changes made by gene editing should extend is certainly a contentious topic.

There are those who are justifiably wary of the prospect of scientists and researchers finding ways to use these advancements to “play God.” Gene editing ethics, especially in the area of changing the DNA in reproductive cells, are nebulous because those being affected by the change have no say in the matter. Altering the genes that parents pass on to their children could prevent those children from having certain diseases and disabilities, which could lessen human suffering. However, the potential cost of this step would be to stigmatize disability communities, as gene editing would in effect take their type out of the gene pool. What’s more, inequalities among people may be aggravated, and abuses of this technology might be introduced. For example, while gene editing could possibly prevent congenital diseases, it may also be used to make cosmetic enhancements.

Indeed, if sci-fi movies and T.V. shows have taught us anything, it’s that developments in the field of gene editing might open the floodgates to efforts to improve offspring outside the bounds of combatting disease and disability.

The National Academy of Sciences advocates for allowing the CRISPR technology to be used only in the case of “serious disease or disabilities and not for other things.” This definition is too vague, though, since what one person may view as a serious disease or disability, another may view as a source of diversity. An article by the Washington Post Editorial Board points out that “a line would have to be drawn between heritable changes that are clearly valuable and those that risk unnecessarily humiliating people, destabilizing society and changing the nature of humanity.”

We have reached the incredible achievement of mapping the human genome. The question now is what will the future hold. Do we now embark on the path toward eliminating all imperfections, along with all disease? Are there those who would use this technology with a desire to create a superhuman, free from all physical disease and imperfections? And who determines what variations constitute an “imperfection?”

In light of all the dilemmas and ethical quandaries that accompany this scientific advancement, it is necessary that limitations be made and lines be drawn.

The best way to deal with the issues surrounding gene editing is through extensive public debate in which risks and benefits are measured and balanced. Only after bringing into play the viewpoints and knowledge of many people can decisions about the limitations of this technique be made.

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