Diving Into The Ethics Of The Technology Behind Designer Babies
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World tells the story of a government that manipulates people’s genes to deepen the divides between social classes, creating a race of superhumans and a race of slaves. Today, a revolutionary technology called CRISPR-Cas9 has some scientists worrying that Huxley’s bleak vision isn’t so implausible, at least when it comes to having the necessary technology. CRISPR allows scientists to quickly and cheaply edit, delete or replace any gene in any plant or animal. Researchers have already used the method on an astonishing range of experiments, from engineering mosquitos to resist the parasite that causes malaria, to creating miniature pigs and stopping cancer cells from multiplying. In April, scientists in China announced they’d used CRISPR to edit the genes of human embryos. Naturally, fears about designer babies and eugenics were not far behind.
This week, hundreds of scientists convened in Washington, D.C., for a conference to talk about the ethics of editing the human genome, and to try to shape an international consensus on how the technology should and shouldn’t be used. Here, a selection of bioethicists share their thoughts on how we should move into the brave new world of CRISPR.
Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, professor of bioethics and Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University: Before addressing ethical issues about human genetic modification with tools like CRISPR, we have to correct misunderstandings about what we can and cannot do. At this point in our understanding of the dynamics of human development, we can send in one or a small number of genes to correct or modify single traits. However, our understanding of the genetics of complex traits like intelligence, or musical ability, or athleticism is still rudimentary, and no one would know how to create a more intelligent child, for example.
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