Genetically-Modified Babies: Why Human Life is Too Sacred to Construct in a Lab

August 18, 2017

What is a human life worth? When does life become something not worthy of bringing into the world? Is there a line at which a life no longer becomes human and is expendable?

These are some of the questions at the heart of the controversy over CRISPR technology, a human gene editing process that modifies the DNA of embryos to grow “better people.” The problem is that CRISPR pushes us back to the eugenics era — where everyone is expendable, no one is unique, and the pursuit of “the better man” devalues us all.

CRISPR: The new technology that promises to create a better human 

Until recently, all alleged advances in human gene editing occurred in China, where lax bioethics laws allow free human embryo experimentation.

That changed this year when a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, released a study claiming to edit the genome of a human embryo successfully:

Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days — and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb — the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.

In altering the DNA code of human embryos, the objective of scientists is to show that they can eradicate or correct genes that cause inherited disease, like the blood condition beta-thalassemia. The process is termed “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.

The researchers called their methods efficient and profitable in altering the genes. Their goal is to form genetically modified embryos, bring them to term and examine those people throughout their lives. The potential for editing the genetic code for a human life at the embryonic stage does offer a golden promise to prevent fatal genetic disorders before they express in an individual — but those benefits come with steep risks.

The gene editing revolution redefines what it means to be human — and not for the better

There’s a reason I began with the question: “What is a human worth?” One of the top concerns about gene editing is the proliferation of “designer babies.” These children are conceived for the genes they possess, which is supposed to make them “better” than a “regular human.”

It’s a concern some scientists have warned about for years, but the mainstream media is more likely to tell you that “designer babies” are a fringe concern peddled by the religious and technophobes — in other words, don’t worry, people wouldn’t abuse the power of gene editing.

Not only would people abuse power, but we also have substantial evidence they’ve already exploited that power. Take, for instance, the recent CBS News story lauding Iceland for eliminating Down syndrome — through abortion. Only 1-2 babies a year are born with Down Syndrome in Iceland every year; the rest get aborted even when the test may be a false positive.

Even perfectly healthy babies with no genetic issues have been targeted; countries like China and India have engaged in outright gendercide against women. Families actively abort and kill girls because they want a male child.

Not only can the power of gene editing be abused for designer babies, we know it will be. Humanity already uses the power of abortion to purge those who are deemed “undesirable.”

We don’t know the lasting ramifications of gene editing — and it’s almost impossible to figure them out 

We also face a second, potentially more crucial problem: we don’t know the long-term health ramifications of editing human DNA and passing those modified genes to future generations. We’ve only scratched the surface of our understanding of how the genes work.

For instance, we’ve recently learned that genes will express differently in a person due to environmental factors, in a process called epigenetics. Your lifestyle, family and environment can change how your DNA works and expresses itself over time, and those changes get passed to children. Sometimes these changes advance for several generations, as in the case of genes passed down after a famine in 1836.

Further, when we edit “bad” genes, we may also inadvertently alter some positive benefit those genes could give us in the future. What scientists today consider a bad gene could shift if environmental factors change.

Finally, to study all of these problems, we would have to create modified embryos, bring them to term, and use them as test subjects to ascertain whether or not gene editing is safe. And even then, we’d only know the results from that person’s environmental exposure.

That person will bear the brunt of testing, as well as the ramifications of having an altered genome. This invasion of privacy is substantial and devalues human life to the value of a lab rat.

Devaluing one human life devalues us all

The last point is the most important: devaluing human life, even for the sake of advancing a scientific goal, devalues us all. And when you devalue human life, basing its value on extrinsic worth to the world, you’ve created subjects and slaves, not humans.

We don’t need a slippery slope to know this is true. We have the history to prove it, past and present. Devaluing human life was the central goal of pro-slavery scientists and it made treating people like animals palatable (see the Tuskegee experiments). We’ve seen it in places like China and India, where being female can be a death sentence.

The issues and bioethical concerns of gene editing must be addressed before further research. The benefits, although potentially large, do not outweigh the societal risks.

Life is too precious to leave undefended.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.