Moral storm as designer babies get green light

Genie: In the UK, editing the DNA of human embryos is only legal for research purposes.

Is it ethical to genetically engineer humans? A top bioethics council has declared gene editing of human embryos “morally permissible”. Some fear the social consequences could be disastrous.

Genetically modifying human DNA on a grand scale was once the preserve of science fiction. But as technology makes this vision possible, scientists must grapple with the profound ethical implications of their new powers.

And yesterday, a fiery debate was sparked as the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics declared it “morally permissible” to modify the genes of future children.

The benefits could be revolutionary. By changing or deleting specific pieces of DNA within embryos, gene editing could wipe out life-changing, previously incurable, diseases.

However, some worry it could lead to an age of “designer babies”, in which parents who can access the technology genetically engineer advantageous traits — making their offspring stronger, healthier and smarter.

The council said that procedures should only take place if they do not harm wider society. Nonetheless, professor Karen Yeung states that gene editing has “broader social implications, which have profound consequences”.

Public opinion on the issue is divided. In a Pew Research survey, 48% of respondents approved of gene modification to reduce a baby’s risk of serious disease.

But how advanced is the science behind the debate?

The most heralded gene-editing tool is called CRISPR. According to one of its developers, Jennifer Doudna, the process can edit or delete genes in “virtually any living plant’s or animal’s genome.”

A breakthrough came last year when scientists successfully edited a non-viable human embryo — correcting a gene linked to a potentially fatal heart disorder.

But the process is not perfect. Just this week, researchers found that CRISPR may also cause unforeseen collateral damage to DNA, potentially leading to dangerous mutations.

Furthermore, in terms of designer babies, there is a long way to go before scientists can feasibly engineer traits like intelligence or athleticism. By one count, something as simple as height is controlled by up to 93,000 genetic variations.

Is it ethical to genetically engineer humans?

Maybe Baby

Absolutely not, some argue. At its worst, gene editing will drive a wedge through society — creating a genetically inferior underclass of families who cannot afford “designer babies”. Even preserved for medical use, the procedures might cause unpredictable mutations, ruining the health of untold numbers.

Not so fast, others respond. It has the potential to save millions of lives from diseases that would otherwise be incurable. Overblown fears of mutations or social chaos only stop progress being made, preventing people getting the help they need. With proper oversight and ethical practice, gene editing could spark a new era in human health.

You Decide

  1. Would it be moral for parents to have their children genetically engineered to be more intelligent?
  2. Should we celebrate gene-editing technology, or be scared of it?

Activities

  1. Imagine a future world in which technology allows people to pay for genetically engineered designer babies. What would that world look like? How would society change? Would life be better or worse than it is now? Why?
  2. Watch the second video in Become An Expert — it explains how CRISPR works. Take notes as you go. Then draw a diagram or flow chart which demonstrates the process as clearly as possible. Compare your chart to your classmates’ charts.

Some People Say...

“Genetics will lead to a world where there is a sympathy for the underdog.”

James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The judgements of the Nuffield Council are purely advisory and currently have no direct impact on policy in the UK. British law does not allow the editing of heritable human DNA, however it is permitted strictly for research purposes. The council said that any changes to the law must come after national public debate, parliamentary legislation, and extensive testing on the safety of gene editing,
What do we not know?
How effective gene editing will actually be. As scientists have found, the process itself can lead to unforeseen consequences which could impact the health of the patient. Furthermore, there is much debate surrounding the extent that genetics is responsible for traits like intelligence, which can be defined in many different ways.

Word Watch

Science fiction
For example, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a bleak future in which all citizens are genetically engineered into a rigid caste system.
Nuffield Council on Bioethics
An independent organisation that advises on policy decisions and stimulates debates on bioethics.
Diseases
HIV, cystic fibrosis and multiple types of cancer are among the conditions that CRISPR has the potential to cure.
Survey
Conducted in the US in March 2016.
CRISPR
Stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. See the second video in Become An Expert for a clear explanation of how it works.
Scientists
Led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University. The results were published in the journal Nature.
Non-viable
The embryo was destroyed following the experiment.
93,000
According to calculations by Professor David B Goldstein.

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