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DANIEL VAUGHAN: Gene editing is a powerful tool – and we need rules
What makes us who we are as humans? If we follow various strands of thought throughout human history, two main theories stand out: 1) that human nature is cultivated through culture and nurturing, and 2) that human nature is hardwired through genes and family.
The nurturing side sees humans as blank slates for a society to imprint itself upon, while the hardwired crowd has pushed for everything from eugenics to abortion to gene editing in hopes of shifting humanity’s trajectory. Various inflection points have forced us to confront these strands of thought head-on — and judging by the advances of medical technology, we’ve reached another inflection point.
National Public Radio (NPR) released a fascinating report Thursday on a science experiment out of New York. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College are attempting a medical first: editing the DNA of human sperm to pass down genes that lack certain defects.
We’ve seen some attempts to modify cells and embryos in the past, but sperm editing is a new frontier, now explorable thanks to Jennifer Doudna, whose team developed CRISPR, the tool that edits genes.
In the past, gene editing efforts focused on editing the genome of an individual. For instance, medical researchers have been looking for ways to fix the faulty gene mutations that cause diseases like cystic fibrosis to emerge. These fixes could cure the disease for that person.
But editing sperm and eggs is a different game. It’s an attempt to change genes before they ever have a chance to emerge.
Or, as one of the experts NPR interviewed says, it’s a move from curing disease to designing human beings:
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re manipulating the embryo or you’re manipulating the sperm,” says Françoise Baylis, a bioethicist at Dalhousie University in Canada, who is advising the World Health Organization about gene editing. “The concern is what kind of world are you creating as you move down the path to start manipulating human genetics. We’re on the cusp of prospective parents controlling the genetics of their offspring,” says Baylis.
In defense of the researchers, they’re still in the stage of seeing if this is even a viable avenue to pursue. While it sounds good in theory, actually editing the DNA of sperm is difficult, and the team has not found success.
They’re simply using a tool to see if it’s even possible for their theory to work — and with that, I have no problem. Exploring the outer boundaries of what’s possible with CRISPR and related technology will only lead to further discoveries and deepen our understanding of the human genome.
Still, as a lawyer, some of the first things I think of when people start implying that they have the power to create anything or anyone are risk and liability. If parents actively take up the tools of designing the genetic makeup of their children, what does that say about the intrinsic value of a child who fails to live up to this new form of genetic determinism?
In the end, what we’re describing in “designer babies” is a form of private eugenics. And while both men and women engage in some of that when seeking a mate, they can’t reliably predict how their children will come out through sexual intercourse or even IVF.
What if a child doesn’t like how her parents design her; can she then sue her parent for their failure in creating someone better? Most fashion and cultural trends shift and change over time, so what is “in” now may not be by the time a child reaches adulthood and has to live in a world where their pre-chosen genes differ from what the world wants.
We talk a lot as a society about the haves and have-nots; in fact, cultural identity is an ever-deepening part of the 2020 presidential primaries for Democrats. What happens when the wealthy of our society start using gene editing as a means to give their children an edge?
We’ve seen the recent college admissions scandal envelope large portions of the elite. What makes anyone think they won’t jump at the opportunity to genetically “enhance” their children?
And if they succeed in that endeavor, they’re creating humans who are considered better and more valuable than anyone else. It’s not a society where class, race, or identity draw the lines between people — but rather, where DNA prevails.
The more we learn about the power we have with gene-editing technology, the more I’m reminded of human nature throughout history — and the more I think of Ian Malcolm, the character played by Jeff Goldblum in the original Jurassic Park.
During an early lunch scene, after John Hammond has explained how they re-created dinosaurs, Malcolm says: “Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”
We have to remember that gene-editing technology is a tool. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s just another resource we’ve developed to explore the world around us. And it’s important to establish rules for how to use it.
We’ve already seen what happens in our history when we try to meddle with genes; we’ve resorted to eugenics and mass murder to justify purifying the gene pool. We need to be very careful about how and why we wield this tool.
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