Edi­tor’s let­ter

The Week (US) - - Contents - The­u­nis Bates

The age of the de­signer baby isn’t here yet, but it’s get­ting close. Chi­nese re­searcher He Jiankui trig­gered out­rage last week with his an­nounce­ment that he’d cre­ated the world’s first ge­net­i­cally al­tered in­fants, hav­ing tweaked their em­bryos to make them re­sis­tant to HIV. (See Best Columns: The U.S.) Whether or not He’s claim of a break­through is true—his data hasn’t been pub­lished or peer re­viewed—the vi­tal point is that it could be. For the past decade, sci­en­tists around the world have been mod­i­fy­ing the blue­print of hu­man life with the genome-edit­ing tool CRISPR. A U.S. team last year al­tered the DNA of em­bryos to re­place de­fec­tive genes that cause a hered­i­tary heart con­di­tion. (Un­like He, they did not im­plant their ex­per­i­men­tal em­bryos in a woman’s womb.) This tech­nol­ogy could even­tu­ally wipe out all hered­i­tary dis­eases, in­clud­ing Alzheimer’s and cys­tic fi­bro­sis. But you don’t have to be a science-fic­tion writer to see how prospec­tive par­ents might use it to gift their off­spring with other ad­van­tages in life. Gene edit­ing could be used to boost IQ and ath­leti­cism. Dis­crim­i­na­tion against the short of stature and dark of skin is still rife, and so par­ents might choose to make their chil­dren tall and light-skinned. In a ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied fu­ture, so­ci­ety could be even more di­vided be­tween the rich, who would be able to af­ford “per­fect” de­signer off­spring, and the un­en­hanced poor.

The bonds be­tween par­ent and child could also be ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed. When I look at my son and daugh­ter, I get a small thrill when I spot hered­i­tary traits: my wife’s eyes, my hair, my mother’s quiet stub­born­ness. Fa­mil­iar im­per­fec­tions are no less en­dear­ing. How will it feel to look at your child and in­stead rec­og­nize fea­tures you’ve or­dered from the Acme Su­per Kid cat­a­log: Husky-blue eyes with guar­an­teed 20/20 vi­sion, Michael Jor­dan’s leap­ing abil­ity and wing­span, Ein­stein’s brain­power. Would you feel the pride of a par­ent, or the pride of an en­gi­neer mar­veling at his lat­est cre­ation?

Man­ag­ing edi­tor

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