Let’s Avoid Designer Babies

Omair Ali

Perspectives Editor

Imagine you and your loved one had the ability to customize the genetic makeup of your future unborn child to perfection with the traits you most desire. Whether it’s eye color, athletic performance or even intelligence. This dream-like scenario is slowly becoming a reality, as the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool is being touted as the next big biomedical breakthrough that can lead to the development of genetically engineered children, also known as designer babies. Right now, the idea of designing babies is still in its infancy, but it’s sure to develop as the science of human gene editing advances and approaches the difficult question of proceeding with artificial engineering of human beings.

Remarkable Progress in Embryo-Editing Science

 CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing comes from an adaptive, immune system found in bacteria to protect themselves against pathogens. Essentially, the CRISPR-Cas9 is a means of knocking out genes, which code for proteins that make us what we are. Being able to knock out genes means we can remove genes that produce undesirable traits, and replace them with desirable genes. Scientists are suddenly able to perform gene editing on living humans and embryonic germlines because CRISPR-Cas9 delivers fast results, is affordable and arguably reliable.

Using CRISPR-Cas9, scientists in China successfully removed harmful mutations in some human embryonic cells. Also, scientists in the UK have been given permission to perform experiments that could remove mitochondrial disease from future mother patients using CRISPR technology. They would accomplish this by transferring the mother’s DNA to donor eggs that only contain the appropriate mitochondrial DNA, a process that still incorporates CRISPR-Cas9. While similar experiments had been unsuccessful in the past, there has been a growing trend in the relative success rates in such experiments, and embryo researchers utilizing CRISPR-Cas9 will only continue to refine their skills to the point of indisputability as an accurate tool.

It’s quite startling to see how the use of this technology is evolving into human experimentation and treatment, even in embryonic human cells. The growing liberty being provided to scientists interested in performing genetic experiments on human embryos suggests that reaching the ability to design babies is not a matter of if, but when.

Conserving Life is Fine, but “Artificial Eugenics” is Unsettling

Using CRISPR-Cas9 to correct genetic diseases in living human beings seems fine and maybe creating babies that can avoid these terrible diseases would be okay. However, manipulating our genetic makeup in extraneous ways certainly has ramifications for the future as it will completely obscure the way evolution has played a role in the development of humankind.

The more pressing matter in embryonic gene editing is the ethical boundaries that would be crossed should cosmetics, physical and mental traits be introduced. Attempting to perfect, or at the very least correct, humanity will result in terrible social consequences. As it has been done for many ages, people will readily begin to praise (or envy) the superior products of genomic editing and neglect or discriminate against human beings that aren’t as perfect. The social ramifications are quite clear: a social hierarchy would be constructed that in many ways would parallel some of the worst atrocities in history. Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, Jim Crow societies, and many other systems of brutal social injustice for example. Artificial eugenics, which is exactly what unneeded human gene editing ought to be called, is more than just a slippery slope, it’s revisiting the same notions that our nation struggled to defeat—slavery and open bigotry.  So perhaps re-inviting the idea that certain humans are better than others is the same as re-inviting prejudice. So how about we avoid designer babies all together?

People Don’t Like Gene Editing Right Now

When the potential of gene editing is realized and society must decide whether to tweak human embryos for improving traits, the government— more specifically the American public– must decide whether to support this activity.  As for now, the majority of Americans oppose most steps in that direction, as indicated by a 2016 Harvard poll. While most of the survey takers do not support federal funding for research on human gene editing or supporting gene changing to possibly prevent disease development, most support federal funding of gene therapy treatments as well as genetic testing. While the findings do not suggest that the American public is ready for genetically engineered human beings, the positive reception of genetic testing and gene therapy (where CRISPR-Cas9 is making an impact right now) means that human gene editing has room to receive sweeping support in the future.