What is the meaning of life? No one really has a straight answer to that because it’s such a loaded question that it has a lot of different answers depending on what someone’s personal values are about life. For a mother, the meaning of life could mean watching her children grow and succeed but for a mechanic, the meaning of life could be running and owning a respectable car repair business to pass down in their family for generations to come.
If you get rid of all those extra benefits, what comes first? What is our most primal instinct that comes above everything else? Survival. The fundamental meaning of life is to keep our species alive and the best way to ensure that is to reproduce. Through reproduction, we’re essentially able to better ourselves through the passing down of genetic codes, education, and skills. Think of natural selection: the species best suited to survive in an environment is the species that will live. Bugs that can camouflage into their surroundings will be able to avoid being eaten by predators compared to bugs that can’t. So why am I saying all this? What’s the big picture here? The big picture here is that reproduction is our best chance at continuing our own legacy but making children isn’t a flawless process. There’s a lot of variables that come into play that can impact the health of those children. But scientists have found a way even still to reduce those variables and its called CRISPR CAS-9.
We’ve probably all heard the term “designer baby” by now and most of us probably think of some scientist playing around with the physical features of an embryo in a lab somewhere. Maybe we think of a brown eyed, black haired mother and father flipping through a catalogue and deciding to have a blue eyed, red haired child. Or parents with a long history of the “short gene” being passed down in their families opting to genetically modify their baby to have the tall gene. When most think of designer babies, they think of literally designing a baby, from their eye color all the way to their level of intelligence.
But this thinking is wrong, or at least, just way ahead in the future somewhere. Designer babies in today’s time are more along the lines of the genetic modification of babies to reduce the risk of serious diseases/disabilities through CRISPR CAS9 technology. What exactly is CRISPR CAS-9? CRISPR technology is a kind of search-and-replace tool, or cellular scalpel, to alter DNA, often even down to the level of a single letter (Regalado). The affordable and effective CRISPR technique for modifying DNA has made genetic manipulation very similar to cutting and pasting characters in a Microsoft Word document. “The small enzyme works by moving through the body’s cells and cutting away at precise pieces of the genome—something that’s never before been possible to do with such efficiency and ease” (Liss-Schultz). The technology can also be used to edit what scientists call germline cells—embryos in such early stages of development that any changes will become hereditary and can be passed onto future generations. Using the technique, for example, scientists could potentially edit out the gene for Huntington’s disease in a woman before she’s born. Not only would she never develop the disease; but she wouldn’t have the ability to pass it on to any of her children.
You don’t have to be a career scientist to realize why this is exciting and overall important. But it’s important to reiterate that 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 but our understanding of the genetics of more complex traits like intelligence, or musical ability, or athleticism is still rudimentary. So basically, no one knows how to create a more intelligent child yet or anything like that. The use of CRISPR is to correct disease mutations and prevent birth defects. However, the potential is there for the future, and it brings up some serious concerns about safety, about the rights and limits of parents to modify offspring, about what the goals are of technological advance and where and when we need to set firm boundaries to prevent harm and mistakes. Technology develops at an alarming rate, just look at how far mobile phones have come in such a short amount of time. Genetic altering technology is no different so even though right now, we can only modify disease traits, it won’t be long until we can start making an impact on other types of traits.
And although the idea is exciting, it quickly brings up the questions of where our boundaries should lie. What limits are we going to place on ourselves with this kind of technology? Should we place any limits at all? With this kind of technology developing, I think it’s important that we have limitations in place. Morally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow the genetic altering of frivolous things about an embryo like eye color, hair color, or even really athleticism or intelligence. In the grander scheme of things, it would most likely set the parents up for disappointment. Dr. Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania said that “if parents pick traits to make their child athletic and the child doesn’t make it onto the soccer team, for example, the parents may get upset with the fact that they paid for a trait that “didn’t pay off.” It could also lead to the child being hurt” (The Ethics).
Imagine finding out that your owns parents are more than just disappointed by your inability to make the soccer team but that they also feel slighted or cheated because an enhancement that they paid for on you, didn’t work out to their liking. Though I’m sure we’d all like to believe that parents will love their children unconditionally, we’ve all felt some degree of their disappointment at some point in our lives. It’s not a good feeling and more often than not, kids tend to unnecessarily beat themselves up about it. Giving parents the ability to minutely select the genetic traits of their offspring could subtly worsen the relationship between parents and children.
Furthermore, there’s no single gene that’s responsible for things like intelligence, musicality, athleticism, and so on. Genes often have more than one use. For example, “a gene that controls intelligence could also control anger management. If you figured out a way to manipulate this gene and decided to, you could end up with a genius that has a serious anger problem. Researchers announced the identification of approximately 52 different genes that may correlate with just intelligence” (Jacobsen). Although we’re really starting to get the hang of what roles each gene plays, we’re nowhere near figuring out who’s directly in charge of each minute trait so we shouldn’t even attempt to act as if we do. It’d be too great of a risk.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the attempt to make our children smarter or kinder but we’d need to be careful and ask ourselves the purpose of trying to impact those traits before birth rather than after like simply using tutors, music lessons or instilling discipline. Aside from the possible emotional distress it can place on families, there’s a potential of socio economic distress as well. “Designer” babies would most likely be better looking, smarter, etc. This could create another sublevel of “classes” between designer and non designer babies.Parents have an innate right to modify their children if they see fit. Say you are one of the tens of thousands of people with Huntington’s disease, a terrible, hereditary neurodegenerative disorder caused by a mutation in the HTT gene.
“The diseased version of the gene makes an abnormally long protein that becomes toxic in your neurons, eventually killing them. Symptoms usually appear in your 30s or 40s as small twitching movements, a lack of coordination, and depression. In the coming years, the spasms will grow. It will be increasingly difficult to walk, talk, and think. Within 20 years, you will most likely be dead. You are resigned to your fate, but you and your partner would very much like to have kids, and you have no interest in passing this particular legacy to your child” (Jacobsen).
What do you do? What options do you really have? Before CRISPR, your best bet would be a procedure called “preimplantation genetic diagnosis or PGD, in which embryos produced through in vitro fertilization (IVF) are screened for the unwanted gene” (Jacobsen). PGD was a major game changer for a lot of people in the predicament mentioned above but it has limitations. You may be one of the unlucky few who has two copies of the bad HTT gene, in which case all your embryos are guaranteed to inherit one copy.
Or you could just be uncomfortable with the idea of producing and discarding multiple embryos. But with CRISPR, we could change the “bad” gene of an embryo back to a “good” gene and since it’s your own embryo, you would have a right to do that. But the most integral question: Does the ability to fix genetic defects in our children mean that we have the responsibility to do so? If you know that you have a hereditary debilitating disorder and are now presented with a way to fix it, isn’t it your responsibility to do so? This is where it gets a little tricky. Take the topic of vaccines for example. Vaccines were a major break in medicine that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives since its creation and yet a couple of years ago, there was a tremendous movement of people who believed (and still do) that vaccinating children does more harm than good. With vaccinations, doctors are required to inject you with just a little bit of the virus and the antibodies that help fight it in order to help your immune system make its own antibodies that would be able to fight the disease.
You can quickly see where this might be a concern for a lot of parents. So they may opt out of having their child receive the vaccine, which they have a right to do as parents but now it brings up the question of whether or not it’s the right thing to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to never have a case of the chicken pox because of a vaccine I received when I was younger but I can’t say how fortunate I would’ve been if I hadn’t received that vaccine. But my parents knew that there was a way to prevent that disease from wreaking havoc on my body and they decided to seize that opportunity. This kind of logic makes the most sense to me.
If you’re fully aware that there’s a cure for something that’s very likely to affect you or your loved ones, isn’t it your duty to administer that cure? Why wouldn’t you? It’s there! This is how I think of CRISPR. We now have a way to “cure” ourselves of diseases like sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, ataxia, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, and albinism. These are all diseases that have total influence over your quality of life, often pushing it over for the worse. If we know of a way to prevent those diseases, it’s our moral duty to exercise that duty. “In 2017, after long consideration, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a controversial 261-page report that paved the way for clinical trials on human germline editing when there was a chance for “preventing a serious disease or condition.”” (Jacobsen).
It also recommended that the problematic genes should only be converted to “versions that are prevalent in the population and are known to be associated with ordinary health.” In other words, stick to editing for obvious diseases and reverting them back to “normal” function. Don’t try to enhance anything just yet. Our next task is to differentiate between what’s a disease and what’s just a way of life. “Should the GJB2 mutations that result in congenital deafness be corrected? How about the LPHN3 gene variant that is strongly associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ? Or the KLB gene that might affect your desire for alcohol? One of the most interesting judgment calls might be for the so-called warrior gene, MAOA, which seems to play an important role in aggression.
People who have the MAOA-L variant are more likely to commit a violent crime than people who have the “normal” version. The warrior gene is a classic example of genetic determinism” (Jacobsen). Most people with the MAOA-L variant are, more often than not, just normal citizens, it could even make them great football players or Wall Street traders but if it has to potential so push someone a little too far past the normal line, should we consider it to be something that needs to be corrected? What would be the impact if we did? Would that person still experience anger? Is it really that important of an emotion to keep? “Scientists have already identified a handful of rare gene variants that seem to be upgrades of the standard version most of us possess. A variant of the LRP5 gene results in ultradense, nearly unbreakable bones. People with a variant of the ANGPTL3 gene metabolize triglycerides in their blood so efficiently that they are virtually immune to heart disease. Those possessing the hDEC2 variant need less sleep than normal people, and those with variants of the CCR5 gene don’t get AIDS” (Jacobsen). Hundreds of other upgrades are just waiting to be discovered but which one of these are deemed diseases that we should fix and which are just “the way life goes sometimes”? This question is what people should be more concerned with.
Parents have a right to edit their child’s genes in the embryo because they have a right to that embryo, the same right they would have if they were doing in-vitro. But where do we draw the line of necessary fixes and enhancements? Is there really a line that needs to be drawn? Can having unbreakable bones be overly dangerous to society? Getting less sleep? No heart disease? CRISPR is an important development but we need to take a close look at all of it’s capabilities today in the present and in the future because we will eventually have to discuss what we value as a society enough to start making a standard change in all offspring.But I’m not saying that the idea of CRISPR and its capabilities is completely futile. Being able to sequence a human genome is huge and it can have a profound impact if we’re eventually able to successfully carry it out on a human embryo that has a genetic code for a disease such as down syndrome, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and many others. That’s where I think CRISPR technology will have the most useful purpose. This brings me back to my point in the beginning about survival. Being able to remove disease and disability factors from our DNA would skyrocket our survival chances immensely.
It would greatly elongate our life span, solidify our human identity, and further our economic output. Julian Savulescu said it best, “There is a moral obligation to enhance ourselves and our children. Genetic enhancement is not just permissible, but morally obligatory. It is the same kind of obligation that we have to treat and prevent disease” (As). We do have an obligation to make the future better for future generations and we’re acting on those obligations every day by making advances in medicine and vaccines, working together to stop pollution, etc. We’re always learning more about our surroundings in order to better prepare our future selves. CRISPR technology is no different, it’s merely just letting us get down to a molecular level to provide that better future.
Arguments against genetic engineering are moreso concerned with the ideas that parents will start abusing this newfound power to have an outcome in what their children will be predispositioned to achieve in life or their outward appearance which I think is a valid concern. CRISPR shouldn’t be used to make your child more aesthetically pleasing, it couldn’t even do that for you if it wanted to. Mastery of the genome on that level isn’t there yet and I don’t think we should be too concerned about getting it there. We need to be concerned about eradicating disease and harrowing disabilities from our DNA in order to prolongate the survival of our species.
I guarantee that whether or not your child is the blue eyed stand out of your brown eyed family has no further meaning to human society beyond your vanity.