The ethical quandaries of genetic editing

I’ve been doing a lot of reading over the last year on the subject of genetic engineering, particularly in light of the advent of CRISPR technology. If you haven’t heard of that yet you might want to look into it. It’s an amazing scientific advancement which allows scientists to go in and conduct some surgical stitching of the genetic code which defines the physical makeup of all living things. While that sounds tremendously exciting, it’s also pretty darned frightening when you stop to think about it. Potential advancements in medical technology aside, there are also a number of ethical and even religious questions which become immediately tangled up in the debate. Christine Emba published an excellent article on the subject at the Washington Post this week.

The potential for control at our fingertips makes the idea of “playing God” more than a cheeky metaphor.

Knowing this, we should view our judgment on these questions warily. Rather than relying on our feelings as these technologies inexorably progress, we should engage in vigorous public debate about their potential and regulation. Now is the time to examine the things we value, the ways in which we make decisions and what we see as solutions.

For instance: Much of the debate around CRISPR, the technology that would make inheritable gene editing possible, involves what we can fix and how far changes should go. This latest recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences would allow the technology to be used only to treat or prevent “serious disease or disabilities.” But what is a disease? Should certain qualities, such as deafness and autism, be considered normal variations and sources of valuable diversity? Fostering the notion that only perfect is desirable is certain to change society in the long run. We may play god, but we don’t have the power to foresee all the consequences of assuming that role.

Before diving into that quagmire it’s worth recognizing some of the huge challenges facing us just in the nuts and bolts of the science of genetic engineering. As I said, I read a number of pieces, both pro and con, which examine this field of science, as well as sitting through numerous interviews with both scientists and ethicists who are debating it currently. We have indeed reached the point where we can map the entire human genome and that is an incredible achievement which deserves recognition. Having done so, you might expect that we are well on the path toward eliminating all of our problems, right? I mean, having this map we can just go in and turn off whichever gene causes cancer and eliminate one of the great plagues which is crushing humanity.

Not so fast. While we’ve come a long way a short period of time I’ve still heard scientists describing the situation as being akin to handing a pile of electrical components and a schematic to a chimpanzee. We have the map in our hands but the truth is we are still light years away from being able to use it to quickly arrive at a definitive destination. Returning to the example of curing cancer, you might be tempted to think that somewhere in that gigantic DNA string there is one gene causing the problems which we could simply turn off. If only it were that simple. It turns out that almost nothing that happens in the human body is the responsibility of one single gene. Multiple genes work in combination and produce all sorts of results, frequently unexpected. Even if you could locate the precise combination of genes causing breast cancer and switch them off, you still don’t know what else those jeans might’ve been doing. There has probably never been a better example of the dangers inherent in the law of unintended consequences.

And then there are all of the nagging ethical questions brought up by the author linked above. Even assuming that we do get to the point where we can play the genetic code like a Stradivarius violin, just how much of this “editing” are we going to engage in? Do you envision a race of superhumans, free of all physical disease and imperfections? And if so, where does science draw the line of what constitutes an “imperfection?” Picture a country full of nothing but almost monotone Nordic or Mediterranean gods and goddesses walking around. Will there be no short people? No people with big noses? No people with brown eyes? Where does it all end?

I’m not suggesting this research should be abandoned. If somebody can actually manage to figure out a way to end the scourge of intractable diseases which we can’t seem to control and do so without creating entire new layers of mayhem, I’m all for it. All I’m saying is that we’re treading on some seriously thin ice here and need to proceed with caution.