The editing of DNA: is it ethical?

Just in a single lifetime we have found out what DNA is and how to rewrite it, with contemporary society having the technology available to tamper with our genetic makeup. Yet, meddling with our DNA has been a topic of high debate, as all experiments raise difficult ethical questions, perhaps none more than the use of CRISPR in human embryos. Although nobody has yet tried to start a pregnancy with those embryos, if it is ever done, we will be crossing a line that has been debated for decades. 

Creating a genetically modified baby is already illegal in at least 25 countries, and in much of Europe it has already been banned for decades. Back in 2015, the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee stated that Germline modifications could “jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics”. This regards the jump from somatic gene editing (editing cells such as blood, brain, and skin cells, where the DNA does not get passed down to offspring) to germline gene editing (editing cells such as sperm, eggs, or embryos). Hence, the predominant difference is that we are then basically changing the DNA of future generations.

Furthermore, there is a divide between therapy and enhancement, therapy treats diseases and enhancements give advantages to people who are already healthy. The action today is happening between somatic gene editing and therapy, which includes treatments for people living with a disease. Yet the line between therapy and enhancement has overtime become more and more blurred. Hence, if we allow for germline edits, germline enhancements may become possible, creating the possibility of so called “designer baby’s”. Here we must ask ourselves, what do we characterise as a disease? Would you include deafness, blindness, or dwarfism?

There are rare genes linked to lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, immunity to HIV, less body odour, the ability to get by with less sleep. Yet, where do we draw the line? 

What we must pay notice to is that there are already methods in which one uses IVF to tests cells from the embryos in order to implant ones without the disease, namely a process called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Even so, this process has also been used to check for other traits, like the sex, eye colour, and with time we will be able to give an entire report card listing e.g. hair texture and skin colour. There are inherent risks and costs regarding IVF due to the egg harvest, however, it is predicted that we will eventually be able to grow human eggs in a lab using skin cells. And if we add gene editing to this it is important to ask ourselves, what do we deem as characteristics that are acceptable to modify?

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