Genetic modification can be quite a controversial topic when one considers its possibilities and drawbacks. It can involve “germline” editing, which means modifying DNA in such a way to influence descendants. Other very popular forms of developing gene-editing technology is CRISPR and Cas9, which involves the targeting of specific sequences of base pairs of DNA. Many proponents argue for the plethora of possible health benefits that human genetic engineering could provide, while opponents often see technology as too limited for such a task, resulting in a wide variety of unforeseen ramifications. Nevertheless, we should ask: should the genetic editing of humans be allowed?
The first perspective on the issue of genetic modification or editing is the idea that we should freely allow it. The largest argument in favor of this perspective is that gene editing technologies could allow for the reduction, or even complete elimination, of genetically transferrable diseases. There was a study conducted which evaluated if gene alterations could correct sickle cell disease (SCD). The study was written and performed by over ten different authors and scientists, led by Megan D. Hoban. It was published via the American Society of Hematology, the world’s largest professional society that researches blood disease. Therefore, the source is credible because of how renown the publication is. It is also strong due to corroboration of so many professionals within the study. The study investigated the use of Zinc-finger nucleases to target specific genes within stem cells of bone marrow to stop the production of sickle cells (Hoban et al., 2015). Although not 100 percent successful, the study concluded that the genetic editing of those stem cells is a promising one-time treatment to completely stop not only sickle cell production, but also the passing down of the genes responsible for SCD. Another piece of evidence to support this argument is the idea of the increased accuracy of CRISPR and Cas9. Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News finds that CRISPR/Cas9 techniques can work accurately without donor templates. (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, 2018). There was a study led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, along with MIT and Harvard that precisely inserted or deleted genes in 195 human alleles (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, 2018). Finally, an article by Mark Swartz from Stanford University also corroborates with this. The article notes the possibility of fixing SCD, but also notes that SCD can already be treated efficiently using bone marrow transplants (Schwartz, 2018). The argument of genetic modification of humans being used to prevent or cure DNA-related diseases is based on evidence of studies and possibilities of new technologies. Proponents of this perspective using this argument tend to have faith in the ability of new technologies to be successful in editing DNA safely and effectively. The reasoning is mostly sound, as the idea of preventing genetically transferrable diseases is a good one; nevertheless, it is very important to consider the validity. There are good pieces of evidence about how efficient techniques could be, such as the provided study concerning SCD, but there is not a 100 percent guarantee of success. Because of this, proponents assume the possibilities of success are worth the risks involved, an inferential gap some people are not willing to cross, especially when newborns are involved. Furthermore, this argument offers compelling reasoning and evidence for why genetic modification of people should be freely allowed, but it is weakened by uncertainty, giving it decent strength overall with a few significant weaknesses.
In addition to fighting genetically inherited disease, another argument in favor of freely allowing human genetic engineering is the general enhancement of people that it could promote. Based on technology that is currently available, with research of future technology and gene editing techniques, proponents of genetic modification believe that the possibilities are endless. In “Genetic Enhancement,” Kathi E. Hanna explores the idea of using genetic engineering to enhance people and future generations. Hanna has a M.S. degree and a PhD, giving her adequate expertise in the subject. She is also a health policy consultant, writer, and editor, who specializes in biomedical topics, improving credibility and reliability. The article was published by the National Human Genome Research Institute. Being a research institute, the information is highly accurate and factual, as it is comprised of findings by numerous members of the scientific community. However, they are proponents of gene editing, meaning their view could be slanted in favor of the idea. They propose that genetic modification of people could be used to affect simply one person or future generations. An example would be inserting a mechano-growth factor, which helps with muscle building, in elderly people. This would prolong their lives and slow down muscle degeneration significantly (Hanna, 2006). Another possibility includes improving physical performance by genetically stimulating Erythroprotein, a protein stimulating red blood cell production, allowing for better oxygen supply to the muscles. An article in the Pharmaceutical Journal additionally evaluates the idea of genetic enhancement. It is written by Robert Sparrow and Glenn Cohen. They note the possibility of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD could allow doctor to choose specific embryos to implant for pregnancy, and these embryos would be without undesirable traits (Sparrow & Cohen, 2015). The article also mentions how future genetic modification could be used to promote “good” genetic traits. Some of these may be objective, such as height, or they may be universally good, like a strong immune system (Sparrow & Cohen, 2015). This argument is logical because it clearly supports the permissibility of human gene editing to enhance humanity. Most of the evidence, though, relies on hypothetical technology and future techniques. Also, much like the medical argument, they assume the benefits are worth taking the risk, for currently there may be unforeseen consequences.
The alternative perspective regarding human genetic modification is it should not be allowed. One argument frequently used to support this perspective is the medical argument against it because it is currently risky and dangerous to those involved. This is because established technology is not precise and accurate enough to efficiently modify genes risk-free. Paul Knoepfler explores the danger of human gene editing in an article on his blog called “Why CRISPR baby production (if it happened) was unethical & dangerous. Knoepfler is an American biologist, giving him some expertise on genetic engineering. He is a professor in the department of cell biology and human anatomy and the comprehensive cancer center at the University of California, further strengthening his reliability. The source is Knoepfler’s personal blog, so it is bound to be opinionated, but it is still noteworthy because it gives the perspective of an expert in the field. His problems with human gene editing, specifically using CRISPR technology, are addressed to the alleged CRISPR-born twins Jianku He, a Chinese scientist, claimed responsibility for. The twins face a lifetime of risks because of possible genetic issues and increased susceptibility to disease (Knoepfler, 2018). The claim by He was the twins were modified to prevent the contraction of HIV/AIDS. However, this is unnecessary because there are already established ways to do so. (Knoepfler, 2018). An article by Marcy Darnovsky in the New York Times also addresses some dangers of human gene editing. She considers modifying mitochondrial DNA to prevent mitochondri-related diseases, but in five macaque monkeys tested on, abnormalities were found. This contributes to the idea that alterations in certain genes of one person can be passed to later generations in a dangerous way (Darnovsky, 2014). Finally, an article by “What is biotechnology?” corroborates with the aforementioned idea by explaining how genetic changes in one specific spot could affect other genes with unforeseen consequences. Not to mention, the US National Institutes of Health does not support or fund anything using genome tools in human embryos (What is biotechnology?, 2019). This argument is based on current technology and the dangers involved with gene editing. This makes it strong because it is quite factual that there is no 100 percent safe way to edit human genes. The inferential gap, of course, is the idea of there never being a perfectly safe technique or technology in the future. If current, or new, technology and techniques are perfected, this argument becomes invalid, weakening it. Overall, the argument is very strong because it points out flaws and dangers with current scientific knowledge and techniques.
A second argument against allowing human genetic modification is the unethicality of it. In addition to dangers and risks, there are other reasons it is unethical. An article by Arthur L. Caplan et al. focuses on the ethical dilemmas of human genetic editing. Caplan and the other three authors are all experts in the topic of discussion, for they are part of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University, making their information credible. Also, the source itself is the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is a highly factual and fairly neutral source. Firstly, using genetic editing of people as a form of “healthcare” means that it can become very expensive for treatments, which means only those who are very wealthy could afford it (Caplan et al., 2015). Then, more preliminary, there are possible regulatory issues with testing because there is a need to educate potential subjects. This may lead to the misinforming of subjects in order to make testing seem more desirable, which in turn leads to consent that is not truly informed (Caplan et al., 2015). To build on this, an article in the Japan Times notes the current technology as being in trial stages, making it dangerous to test on people without further confidence. (the japan times, 2018). Returning to the “CRISPR twins” announced by He, a group of 122 scientists condemned him for his illegal research because it is unfair to those who respect ethical boundaries and keep them in mind when conducting research. (the japan times, 2018). Finally, human gene editing can lead to “playing god,” and altering genes to achieve specific traits, like being tall, which may could be considered as an abuse of potentially revolutionary technology (Sparrow & Cohen, 2015). Primarily, the argument of human gene editing being unethical follows the logic that we currently cannot test the technology on people ethically, since we are unsure of what results may yield. The main assumption of this argument is the risks are not morally worth the potential gain, which weakens the argument. Also, the “designer baby” idea is somewhat of a slippery slope. Overall, it is a generally strong argument supported by numerous experts and logically identifies ethical issues with human genetic modification.
Both perspectives offer their respective strength when considering human gene editing. The perspective in favor of it is convincing because of the wide variety of possible benefits to all of humanity. Alternatively, the perspective against it points out the flaws in current technology that could result in unforeseen consequences, making it dangerous and unethical. Moreover, in my opinion, I feel that perspective against it is more convincing at this time.
Before researching the issue, I was completely against human genetic engineering. I believed it is too risky to test and would result in a plethora of problems. However, I was heavily influenced by the medical argument in favor of human gene editing. Specifically, I found the study on sickle cell disease to be quite convincing, leading me to believe future research and technology could be used to significantly help treat genetic diseases. Thus, after research, I feel that we should allow human genetic engineering, but only with proper safeguards in place to ensure the safety of all patients. I also feel it should only be pursued for purely medical reasons, not for “enhancement” or to ensure desirable traits.
As this issue is a complex one, there is still plenty of research that could be done. To further my understanding of the topic, I would like to research the lives of the “CRISPR twins” to see how they turn out, along with current development of future genetic engineering technologies to see if it will become any safer.
- Caplan, A. L., Parent, B., Shen, M., & Plunkett, C. (2015, October 8). No time to waste—the ethical challenges created by CRISPR. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4641494/
- Darnovsky, M. (2014, February 23). Genetically modified babies. Retrieved from https://cosmicawareness.org/wp-content/uploads/nytimes_op_ed_gmo_babies.pdf
- Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology Newa. (2018, November 8). CRISPR-Cas9 without donor templates still accomplishes DNA repair. Retrieved from https://www.genengnews.com/news/crispr-cas9-without-donor-templates-still-accomplishes-dna-repair/
- Hanna, K. E. (2006, April). Genetic enhancement. Retrieved from https://www.genome.gov/10004767/genetic-enhancement/
- Hoban, M. D., Cost, G. J., Mendel, M. C., Romero, Z., Kaufman, M. L., Joglekar, A. V., . . . Kohn, D. B. (2014, December). Correction of the sickle cell disease mutation in human hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells. Retrieved from http://www.bloodjournal.org/content/125/17/2597.full?sso-checked=true
- Knoepfler, P. (2018, November 26). Why CRISPR baby production (if it happened) was unethical & dangerous. Retrieved from https://ipscell.com/2018/11/why-crispr-baby-production-if-it-happened-was-unethical-dangerous/
- Shwartz, M. (2018). Target, delete, repair. Retrieved from https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2018winter/CRISPR-for-gene-editing-is-revolutionary-but-it-comes-with-risks.html
- Sparrow, R., & Cohen, G. (2015, September 24). Genetically engineering humans: A step too far? Retrieved from https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/opinion/comment/genetically-engineering-humans-a-step-too-far/20069421.article?firstPass=false
- The japan times. (2018, November 28). China's opening of human gene engineering 'Pandora's box' seen as symptom of unbridled tech quest. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/11/28/business/tech/chinas-opening-human-gene-engineering-pandoras-box-seen-symptom-unbridled-tech-quest/#.XHwcc4hKi01
- What is biotechnology? (2019, January). CRISPR-Cas9. Retrieved from http://www.whatisbiotechnology.org/index.php/science/summary/crispr