Gene edit­ing is here, and it’s an enor­mous threat

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - Marc Thiessen

AChi­nese sci­en­tist's claim to have cre­ated the first ge­net­i­cally edited ba­bies has evoked wide­spread con­dem­na­tion from the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. "This is far too pre­ma­ture," one Amer­i­can ge­netic sci­en­tist told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

But here is a larger ques­tion: Should we be do­ing this at all?

The Chi­nese sci­en­tist, He Jiankui, used a ge­need­it­ing tech­nique known as CRISPR to al­ter the DNA of two chil­dren in a petri dish and at­tempt to make them re­sis­tant to HIV. This is not what has Amer­i­can sci­en­tists up at arms. In fact, re­searchers in the United States have done the same thing. In 2017, sci­en­tists at Ore­gon Health & Science Uni­ver­sity used CRISPR to ge­net­i­cally al­ter hu­man em­bryos to make them re­sis­tant to an uniden­ti­fied dis­ease. The dif­fer­ence is that He im­planted his edited em­bryos. The Amer­i­can re­searchers killed theirs.

The prospect of ge­net­i­cally elim­i­nat­ing crip­pling dis­eases is cer­tainly ap­peal­ing, but this prom­ise masks a darker re­al­ity. First, there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween ge­netic engi­neer­ing and the ex­tremely promis­ing field of gene ther­apy, in which doc­tors use CRISPR tech­nol­ogy to re­pair the DNA of de­fec­tive non­re­pro­duc­tive cells — al­low­ing them to treat can­cer, ge­netic dis­or­ders and other dis­eases. In gene ther­apy, the ge­netic changes af­fect only the pa­tient. In ge­netic engi­neer­ing, sci­en­tists al­ter the en­tire ge­netic struc­ture of the re­sult­ing hu­man be­ing.

Play­ing with hu­man­ity's ge­netic code could open a Pan­dora's box. Sci­en­tists will even­tu­ally be able to al­ter DNA not just to pro­tect against dis­ease but also to cre­ate ge­net­i­cally en­hanced hu­man be­ings. The same tech­niques that can elim­i­nate mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy might also be used to en­hance mus­cles to im­prove strength or speed. Tech­niques used to elim­i­nate de­men­tia may also be har­nessed to en­hance mem­ory and cog­ni­tion. This would have pro­found so­ci­etal im­pli­ca­tions.

Only the wealthy would be able to af­ford made-to-or­der ba­bies. This could be a death blow to the Amer­i­can Dream, the idea that any­one who is will­ing to work hard in this coun­try can rise up the eco­nomic lad­der. In­deed, ge­netic engi­neer­ing could ac­tu­ally elim­i­nate op­por­tu­ni­ties for those at the bot­tom. For ex­am­ple, one path to higher ed­u­ca­tion for those at the bot­tom is schol­ar­ships for ath­letic or artis­tic tal­ents. But in a world of ge­netic engi­neer­ing, those schol­ar­ships will dis­ap­pear for the un­en­hanced poor.

If we be­gin to cre­ate per­fect chil­dren in labs, over time so­ci­ety will be­gin de­velop an in­tol­er­ance for im­per­fec­tion. If your chil­dren have an ill­ness be­cause you didn't ge­net­i­cally elim­i­nate it, or if they can't keep up be­cause of their un­en­hanced cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, then that makes them an un­just bur­den on the rest of us. As we are sep­a­rated into the en­hanced and un­en­hanced, re­spect for the dig­nity of ev­ery hu­man life will be di­min­ished.

Then there is the threat to women's equal­ity. If ge­netic engi­neer­ing can of­fer the prom­ise of elim­i­nat­ing dis­ease, it will also al­low par­ents to choose the sex of their child. That could lead to greater sex dis­crim­i­na­tion. Just look at China, where the one-child pol­icy led to mass in­fan­ti­cide of girls. If you be­lieve that gen­der bias ex­ists, then that bias will be ex­pressed through ge­netic engi­neer­ing — with po­ten­tially dis­as­trous im­pli­ca­tions.

It also will lead to an ex­plo­sion in the num­ber of dis­carded chil­dren. For ev­ery child born via in vitro fer­til­iza­tion, there are mul­ti­ple fe­tuses that are cre­ated but never used. To­day, the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices re­ports, there are more than 600,000 cryo­geni­cally frozen em­bryos in the United States. If ge­netic engi­neer­ing through in vitro fer­til­iza­tion be­comes com­mon, that num­ber will sky­rocket, spark­ing a pro­found moral cri­sis.

Here is the bot­tom line: We should not be play­ing God. Ge­netic re­search holds the prom­ise to pre­vent, cure and even elim­i­nate dis­ease. But when it is used to cre­ate made-to-or­der "su­per chil­dren," we have crossed a moral line from which there may be no re­turn.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.