You and your partner are seated in the doctor’s room, full of anticipation. Soon, the doctor walks in with a content smile and hands you a list; you start flipping through the pages and arrive at one that draws your attention: brown eyes, brown hair, no early onset diseases, no genetic diseases, decreased chance of type 2 diabetes, approximated IQ of 115 ... Although this may seem a little far-fetched, the scenario may not be too far from reality if the so-called “designer babies” lie in our future. The idea of being able to selectively choose the traits of babies has been a topic of both awe and horror. The American sci-fi film Gattaca from 1997 presents us with a future society where children are conceived through genetic manipulation in order to endow them with the best hereditary conditions. Now, two decades later, designer babies have become an intense topic of discussion that challenges some of our most intrinsic and fundamental values.
The recent breakthrough that has changed the status of designer babies from a fascinating sci-fi topic to a possible reality is the arrival of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — more commonly known as CRISPR. A simple way to understand CRISPR is to think of it as a genome- editing tool. The central part of this system that enables precise genetic manipulation is an enzyme called Cas9. This protein can seek out and cut specific sequences of DNA, acting like a molecular scissor. This summer, CRISPR was used on human embryos for the first time in the United States, where the technology was used to remove a gene mutation that causes a heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Many scientists exploring the CRISPR technology hail it as an advancement that has the potential to obliterate countless genetic diseases that are passed down from one generation to the next. However, many feel strongly opposed to the idea, and one of them is George Annas — the director of the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at the Boston University School of Public Health — who commented that “The scientists are out of control ... They want to control nature, but they can’t control themselves.”
When this concept of being able to “design” babies sunk into my head, I, too, immediately felt antagonistic towards the idea. There has got to be something wrong with engineering certain traits of your own child; but the more I thought about it, the more muddled I felt about my own opinion. What is that “something” that is wrong with designer babies? Bigger than concerns over the side-effects and logistical issues of genetic engineering is the queasy feeling that the proposed technology is simply not humane. Furthermore, if people are allowed to choose the physical appearances of their children to a certain extent, the pursuit of a painfully standardized version of beauty may also be inevitable.
However, the usage of CRISPR to genetically engineer embryos is highly unlikely to open up a world where the technology is used to precisely design the size of your eyes, height, or even your SAT scores. These physical traits and the level of intelligence are polygenic, as they are determined by the complex interaction of multiple genes. Hence, CRISPR technology is not likely to be used as a means to enhance physical appearances in the way that people feel hostile towards.
When I think about the possibility of CRISPR being able to correct genetic mutations and prevent suffering from hereditary diseases such as genetic blindness, sickle cell anemia, and cystic fibrosis, the uneasy feeling is replaced with anticipation. Currently, most genetic diseases cannot be cured as they arise due to small differences in DNA, and thus treatments are limited to minimizing the associated symptoms. In this case, I feel a lot more confident in standing against those who adamantly oppose genetic engineering of humans in any case. Nobody is “destined” to suffer from diseases that could potentially be avoided. Using CRISPR to prevent genetic diseases may not necessarily be defying or going against religious beliefs; instead, we can think of it as using technology to prevent diseases that can be prevented. Some also argue from an equality standpoint, as it may only be available to the rich. While it is true that not everyone is going to have access to the technology, it may be in the best interest of all to strive towards developing the technology further so that it does become affordable to all — rather than opposing it for that reason.
What intrigues me the most about this controversy over CRISPR and genetic engineering of embryos is that it probes into numerous areas ranging from science, religion, and philosophy. While the whole idea of designer babies may seem daunting at first, the controversy over this rapidly developing technology is much needed in order to maximize the potential that it can bring to us in our future — perhaps a world free of genetic diseases.