Rewriting the gene pool of a fetus seemed more like a scene from a sci fi movie— until China made its first move toward transmuting such fantasy into a daunting reality. Chinese researchers had first edited the genes of a human embryo in 2015, but its recent research consolidated into a powerful and cost efficient gene editing tool: CRISPR.
A team at the Southern University of Science and Technology first explored the prospects of designing babies resistant to diseases like smallpox, cholera, and HIV by planning to eradicate the CCR5 gene. After studying the inherent mutations in individuals resistant to HIV, it concluded that transferring natural proteins into human embryos can alter the CCR5 protein in a way that thwarts the virus from infecting the cells. In specifics, this technique uses a bacterially derived protein to cut the gene out and replace it with another molecule. The team wanted to test if this procedure could replace a gene in a single cell fertilized embryo, and if it did succeed, all cells produced would have the repaired gene.
Despite China’s fervent attempt to showcase the plausible benefits of reduced genetic diseases, it has inevitably become the hub of heated controversy on both practical and ethical levels. Gene editing will reap unforeseen consequences and risks, including the introduction of undesired mutations during the intricate process, or creating a baby with a mosaic of edited and unedited cells.
Moreover, scientists have been accused of “playing God” in ways that would only lead to a market of designer babies and a precarious resurgence of eugenics. When we start to tinker with the fundamental building blocks of life and the biology of unborn children without their consent, we are ultimately displaying hubris and arrogance. Nature has its own dignity and interest beyond ours, and the disrespect or irresponsibility we display will only deteriorate the intimate relationship humanity has with fragile ecosystems and the natural environment, home to many other species beside our own. Not only would we be overstepping the line in that sense, revamping cost efficient methods of choosing from an abundant pool of human eggs and screening genomes is going to make it a mundane possibility for us to read, manipulate, and sequence the genetic code with due convenience. Soon enough, we will no longer be focused on eliminating medical diseases or disabilities, but also undesirable commercial traits. From aesthetics like hair and eye color to other characteristics concerning personality and capability, it would become a possibility for people to selectively design their babies with improved eyesight, advanced reading and numeracy skills, and amplified athletic capacities.
The ethical implications of re designing a baby’s genes are extensive. It first exacerbates the socioeconomic inequalities in the global community. Before the technology becomes readily accessible, only the privileged will be able to afford the cost of enhancing the unborn children; this contributes to a vicious cycle in which those on top maintain their prestige and power due to their physically and intelligibly “advanced” babies. Even more problematically, designer babies would likely perpetuate prejudice on the basis of sex or ethnicity, and weed out traits that make a multicultural society successful. Intellectual diversity, a vital component of a healthy democracy, would be compromised if there is a general propensity of people to be biased in favor of certain traits and utility over another.
Moreover, as parents would subjectively be choosing and controlling the genetic outcome of their children, they could steer the future of their children on their whim instead of giving them the opportunity to maximize their experiences and explore latent talents. For instance, if a family wants their child to be a musical prodigy, they would manipulate the genes related to musicality to conceive a baby who is talented enough to fulfill their expectations. Instead of nurturing a healthy environment where the parents encourage their children to try out different passions and find their talents, they will tyrannically coerce the children to follow the path they had pre determined. This is only going to craft an oppressive environment of dominance and pressure, rather than the loving and supportive relationship families should develop.