The Ethics of Designer Babies
Lesley and John Brown had tried for years to conceive a child but were unsuccessful due to Lesley suffering from tubal occlusion – a condition known for causing high infertility rates. After almost a decade the couple turned to In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) for help and on July 25, 1978 they welcomed a baby girl, Louise, into the world. Louise has been widely called to be the first “test tube baby.” Despite the remarkable nature of this occasion, the label “test tube baby” caused many to rebuke the procedure as unethical and claim it was an assault against nature; with many even comparing Louise to Frankenstein. Though IVF is now widely accepted, we now similar rhetoric being used for a new breakthrough: genetically altered babies.
On November 28, 2018 Jiankui He used seven couples with fathers who had controlled HIV and uninfected mothers to produce genetically modified “HIV resistant” babies. According to He, out of the 31 embryos created, 70% were “successfully” edited. However, after review, it has come to light that He, according to the New York Times' Columnist Carl Zimmer, “may have cut the wrong part of the DNA.” What this means is that there may be other consequences of his gene-editing, which is especially worrisome given that He has not published his full work. Other news sources say there is a huge probability that “successful” editing of He’s test babies occurred because of the technology's "off-target" effects — meaning CRISPR, a recently invented tool for editing genomes, can sometimes lead to the alteration of genes not intended for editing. This naturally makes the gene-editing procedure even more problematic as we do not have the necessary data to understand the side-effects of He’s procedure. He denied allegations of malpractice by saying “two beautiful Chinese girls named Lulu and Lala came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few week ago”. More recently, in an email to The Crimson, He rebuked the criticism levied on him by saying: “I will publish my paper and all these questions will be answered in my paper.”
So why has He’s experiment drawn such widespread condemnation from the scientific community? Some might note that his results on the experiment may change the community’s perspective in a manner similar to the perception of gene replacement (in order to prevent the inheritance of mitochondrial diseases) in the 1990s and early 2000s. Though Dr. He’s results for this experiment are regarded as highly unethical, if he is able to replace the gene and eradicate HIV successfully, people may begin to be more accepting of the procedure. However, many have also been quick to criticize this procedure as it may leave the door open for “designer babies” – babies that were genetically altered to have desirable traits, such as intelligence and aptitude. The selection of specific non-disease-causing traits has been regarded as highly unethical because it gives some individuals an unfair leverage over the rest. Furthermore, by opening the door to eugenics, humanity could establish a new, oppressive ideal of what is beautiful and “normal,” especially considering that some babies would be artificially predisposed to succeed more than others.
This is highly reminiscent of the term coined by the Nazi regime called “racial hygiene”. Racial hygiene was marked by the efforts of the Nuremberg Laws and the avoidance of “miscegenation” (the mixing of racial groups through marriage, habitation and sexual intercourse). During the Third Reich Hitler ruled that the slavs and blacks were genetically inferior [HS1]to the, Nordic and Aryan races, which was the eugenic ideal for the Nazi’s. Furthermore, he banned relationships between Jews and Germans in order to create a more a “pure breed” race. This line of thought transcends from the 20th century to present day with the debate on eugenics as many have hypothesized that the use of these “designer babies” could lead to the creation of a new breed of social inequality.
According to the research conducted by Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, this social inequality, “ may lead to the creation of a genetic “overclass” with unfair advantages over those whose parents did not or could not afford to endow them with the right biological dispositions and traits. Or it may lead to homogenization where diversity and difference disappear in a rush to produce only perfect people, leaving anyone with the slightest disability or deficiency at a distinct disadvantage.”
Genetically modified babies are also a rare point in science where Democrats and Republicans share concerns. The director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, recently wrote that "the administration believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time." The reasons behind their strong opposition overlap with regards to fully understanding CRISPR technology and its effects, but differ in that liberals tend to believe that gene editing “could lead to some sort of classist gene-selection available to only the privileged, while those on the conservative side of the spectrum air more concerns about violating human dignity.”
The widespread opposition from politicians to scientists to priests – three diverse and typically opposing groups – criticizing genetic modification shows just how careful we must be when understanding CRISPR and its lethal effects. Unnatural selection through genetic modification is a double-edged sword as it may help eradicate vicious diseases, but it may also lead to an oppressive definition of normal, an unhealthy strive for a false illusion of perfection, and an unequal genetic “overclass”.