Gene editing walks fine line between treatment & enhancement

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Last November, Chinese scientists claimed to have genetically altered the world’s first babies to contain an increased resistance to HIV infection. Despite their good intentions, this groundbreaking research has generated a global debate on the ethics of manipulating DNA in human embryos.

Considering our limited knowledge of its clinical effects and the ease with which this technology could increase inequality, gene editing isn’t an issue to take lightly.

Although these experiments may hold the key to preventing illnesses, their consequences are ambiguous.

Given the complexity of the human genome, it’s uncertain whether disabling a certain gene to protect against HIV could heighten one’s susceptibility to other detrimental diseases, like the West Nile virus and influenza. In addition, modifying germline DNA doesn’t just affect the people it treats—it also places future generations’ health at risk since genetic information is passed down from parent to offspring.

Many people anticipate the powerful potential of gene editing will blur the boundaries between treatment and enhancement. For instance, techniques used to eliminate symptoms of muscular dystrophy or dementia might eventually be used to improve muscle strength or cognitive memory.

While not explicitly problematic, we should consider the social implications associated with manipulating one’s appearance or intelligence.

If available, this practice could exacerbate income inequality, as only the wealthy elite would be able to afford their offspring’s preferred and desirable traits. This would secure their privilege for generations to come, and minimize opportunities for the less-affluent majority.

Gene editing could also prompt greater discrimination against different identity groups. Sex selection might increase gender bias and distort its ratio in the population, especially in countries like China with a historical preference for sons. Furthermore, altering conditions like hereditary deafness could result in the loss of entire communities, connecting people who share a unique culture and who communicate through sign language.

People living with disabilities aren’t only faced with physical challenges. Common misconceptions and stigmas can also be a disadvantage. Using genetic modification to address human impairments could lead to a less diverse and inclusive environment for those with disabilities, leaving them more vulnerable.

We need to approach genetic engineering carefully. Since many countries have yet to reach a consensus on whether the practice is appropriate, further discussion is required to address issues such as safety, efficacy, and social equity.

Changing the genetic makeup of our species is an ambitious undertaking. However, it’s crucial we remain careful and well-informed before we pass the point of no return.

Zier is The Journal’s Editorial Illustrator. She’s a third-year Life Sciences major.

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