When two people decide to have a child, they’re making a decision to pass on their DNA to a baby, with all the advantages and disadvantages written into that code.
New gene editing tools could soon give us the ability to directly manipulate that genetic blueprint. And despite the controversial implications of the term “designer baby,” some argue that taking a more active role in that process — eliminating a few disadvantages, or even tweaking the code to add a few extra benefits, like disease resistance or stronger muscles — is totally ethical, perhaps even a normal decision that we’ll all make for our children in the future.
For now, most of the world is very unsure about this.
When researchers in China published a paper showing that they had (somewhat) successfully edited the genes of human embryos, most observers condemned the idea.
Some criticised the group’s scientific capabilities: The researchers’ work showed so many unpredicted and unwanted changes that many read it as proof that we shouldn’t use that technology in human embryos, since those off-target effects would probably cause deadly or debilitating mutations.
Others saw this work as the scary sign of a dark future: These embryos were non-viable, meaning they were never going to lead to an actual baby. Yet making similar manipulations using an embryo that was going to be implanted and born would lead to changes that would not only affect the child that came from that embryo. These changes would also be passed on to any children these modified children had — we’d be taking a much more active, or at least technologically-enabled, hand in shaping the evolution of the human species than ever before.
For those reasons at least, right now, “everyone agrees that we shouldn’t engineer a baby,” says George Annas, a bioethicist at Boston University.
But what’s true for now won’t be true forever.
Technology is improving rapidly
Researchers are improving the accuracy of genome-editing technology at an incredible pace.
Harvard geneticist George Church told Tech Insider that there are already far more accurate versions of CRISPR, the technology that allows researchers to snip out and replace bits of genetic code, than the version the team from Sun Yat-sen University used.
Church and others say that it’s already possible in some cases to edit genes with few or even almost zero unwanted mutations, suggesting that the accuracy problem will eventually be solved.
If researchers really can modify the genetic code for a human without unwanted mutations, the only question that remains is whether or not it should be done.
An ethical quandary
Is it right to change a person’s DNA before they are even born, not to mention old enough to give consent?
Some researchers, like sociologist and bioethicist James Hughes of Trinity College, think that the answer could be yes.
“We allow parents to have children if they have all kinds of problems,” says Hughes.
Hughes asks: If a parent were to come along and want to change the genome of their child “and the goal of this is to make sure a kid doesn’t have depression or doesn’t end up obese” — interesting in theory, but likely not actually possible given the complex web of environmental and genetic causes behind those conditions — “on what ground does the state then step in?”
His argument is that we don’t stop people from passing on what we consider “bad” genetic codes, things that might make a person’s life harder, so we shouldn’t stop people from trying to provide someone with a “good” genetic code.
Hughes doesn’t think we’re ready to make those sorts of changes yet; he says it’d be perfectly reasonable for the government to prohibit genetically modifying human embryos until it’s adequately tested and shown to be safe — still quite a high bar to pass.
But he thinks that genetically enhanced humans in the form of designer babies are going to happen.
“The research happens everywhere,” he says. “In particular, it’s going to happen in China.”
China is a center for research into genetics and genetic engineering, and one of the most comprehensive projects that’s trying to decode the links between genetics and intelligence is run by BGI, a nonprofit institution in China and the largest genomics research institute in the world.
As Hughes previously told Tech Insider, he thinks that deciding whether or not you modify the genome of your child will eventually become just the sort of regular decision that people make.
In his opinion, “those kinds of choices will become inevitable, and we’ll adapt to them relatively well.”
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