All parents want their children to be not only healthy but also better than them in many ways. Can genetic engineering help them achieve that?
Gene manipulation has made colossal strides over the last decades. Scientists claim that genetic engineering of children has practically become a reality today. Many of them are expected to publish the results of their experiments describing various methods of genetic modification as early as this year.
The subject is a gold mine for journalists and professional writers for hire. The former are on the edge of their seats in anticipation of a new breakthrough, and the latter use the latest information to craft captivating blog posts for various resources.
Currently, advanced genetic editing methods allow for the replacement of flawed DNA fragments with genetically edited ones. It has been experimentally proven that the human genome modification can cure various diseases, such as HIV, hemophilia, anemia, some forms of cancer, and other hereditary disorders.
However, tampering with the DNA raises a number of questions. How safe are such methods? If this technology is ever used on a mass scale, what will be the moral implications of its application?
The ghost of eugenics has long plagued contemporary genetics. Eugenics is understood to be a conscious attempt at breeding specific characteristics in humans by means of selection. Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, was the first to coin the term eugenics in 1883. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, government-sponsored eugenics programs got unexpectedly strong support in society, and not only among right-wing racists and social Darwinists but also among progressive leaders from many countries.
First adopted in Nazi Germany, eugenic laws allowed the state to forcibly sterilize ‘feeble-minded’ people while encouraging more genetically endowed citizens to conceive as many children as possible.
During World War II, Japanese scientists conducted genetic experiments without obtaining the prior consent of the test subjects. China, in its attempt to control birth (the one family — one child policy), adopted a harsh eugenic law in 1955. Being similar to the Western doctrines of the early 20th century, the law forbade people with low IQ to reproduce themselves.
However, because genetic engineering technologies were not advanced enough at the time, all those state-sponsored eugenic programs failed to achieve their intended goals. After the Second World War, most of the developed countries made protection of individual human rights, and more specifically, the right to independently make decisions on reproduction, their number one priority. The notion that governments should care about the wellbeing of their citizens by improving the national gene pool is now associated with an old-fashioned racist approach and no longer taken seriously.
In the future, we will probably learn how to make people more genetically superior. Advances in science will let us alter specific genes in parents so they could be passed on to their children. And, of course, reproduction will not be restricted to genetically superior adult citizens.
Genetically modified cells helped scientists cure a child with a previously incurable form of leukemia. A report published by the Scheie Eye Institute Perelman (Pennsylvania) revealed that the correction of a defective gene responsible for the proper functioning of the retina can be used for the treatment of Leber’s hereditary optic atrophy in children.
Currently, at least three companies — Editas Medicine (USA), Caribou Biosciences (USA), and CRISPR Therapeutics (UK) — are trying to develop a technology capable of making genetic services available to the general public. If successful, they will provide parents with an opportunity to decide whether or not they should opt for an abortion if there’s a high probability of their child being born with a serious genetic disorder.
Last year, He Jiankui, a Chinese biophysicist, succeeded in modifying the genes of two newly born twin girls Lulu and Nana, thus making them immune to HIV. However, the scientist was severely criticized for his experiment and even persecuted by the authorities.
Professor Jennifer Doudna of the University of California has been involved in the study of genetic modification for many years. She wrote an open letter calling on world governments to ban any further genetic engineering experiments. According to the professor, changes in the human genome may pose a serious threat to mankind. Of course, parents will always want their children to have a high IQ and superb physique. However, any genetic intervention can make an unpredictable impact on future generations.
Quite a few scientists supported Professor Doudna and signed her letter. They also believe that the practice is dangerous and ethically unacceptable. According to them, such experiments can only be conducted for non-therapeutic modification (i.e. correction of diseases) and should not be used to improve the yet unborn child’s mental and physical abilities. Therefore, lawmakers in many countries are currently working on legislation to restrict or even ban altogether the human genome modification.
However, if a bill banning genetic modification of unborn children becomes law, it will most likely not work in all countries. It is possible that it will lead to the emergence of ‘genetic tourism’, a practice whereby parents will visit countries where human genetic modification is allowed to improve their future child's abilities.
The UK Research Ethics Committee has recently authorized genetic engineering of the human embryo. The decision was made after a group of influential British scientists concluded that it is ‘morally acceptable’ to genetically modify the DNA of yet unborn children. Thus, the first step toward future perfection of human offspring was made. According to a report published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, DNA modification could be a viable option for parents who want to alter the genetic makeup of their kids. Although this piece of legislation primarily concerns the treatment of genetic diseases or predisposition to cancer and dementia, experts say they do not exclude some kind of genetic intervention for ‘cosmetic’ purposes e.g. changing the child’s eye or hair color at their parents’ request).
The Committee has come up with another controversial legislative initiative. According to it, children with three parents can have their flawed cell mitochondria replaced with that of their ‘second’ mother. After extensive debate, the British Parliament made this procedure legal, thus paving the way for children with the DNA from three parents to be born as early as this year. It is currently legally allowed to genetically modify 14-day old human embryos for research purposes. After the modification is made, the embryos are to be destroyed, and their introduction into the uterus is strictly prohibited.
In the future, artificial reproduction may provide scientists with a possibility to make changes in the human genome, thus programming desired traits into yet unborn children. It can also be done for the prevention of some inherited genetic disorders.
Despite the controversy surrounding the human genome modification, many scientists believe that altering the characteristics of future generations is generally acceptable. However, all embryo-related modifications must be strictly regulated by such state bodies as the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (UK) and licensed on an individual basis by taking into account possible side effects.
Scientific research alone is not enough to understand the full impact of the human genome modification. One should also take into consideration the modern perception of good and evil, especially when dealing with something as delicate as gene manipulation.
There are three main objections to using genetic modification, namely: religious, philosophical, and pragmatic ones. Therefore, altering the human genome requires further comprehensive study and deliberation.