In July 2017, researchers reported that they had made significant progress in using CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene editing techniques to correct a genetic mutation linked to a heart disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in human embryos. This technique is able to identify and remove defective sections of genes and then replace them with healthy strands of DNA, potentially eliminating certain disorders. But concern is growing within the scientific community that the technology is a step too far given the potential consequences of its misuse.
Although in its infancy, there is the possibility that CRISPR could eradicate many life threatening diseases, allowing genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease to be permanently removed from the human population. Utilitarian theory states that an action is ethically acceptable should it bring happiness to the greatest number of people. From this perspective, improving quality of life, reducing suffering from crippling disorders and altering genomes to facilitate increased resistance to contagious diseases would be considered an ethical pursuit.
In the development of CRISPR genome editing, a natural next step is to use the technology to enhance traits that would not be considered a necessity, in the same manner as preventing disease and birth defects. There is potential to enhance preferential characteristics such as intelligence, physical attributes and longer lifespan, although this is considered a difficult task by renowned biochemist Dana Carroll, Professor at the University of Utah; “I am sure there are broader human characteristics that people would like to be able to modulate, however those kind of multi-genetic traits would be difficult to edit because we don’t fully understand their basis, let alone what unintended consequences might result.” Kantian theory would oppose such a development, specifically through the reciprocity principle, which states that people should be treated not as an ‘end’ but a ‘means’. This implies that due to the consequences not being fully understood, the lives of those who are being tested upon would be devalued.
Altering negative behavioural traits, such as violent, sociopathic tendencies or paedophilia is another possibility with the CRISPR technology. From a utilitarian perspective, the aim is to give the most pleasure to the most people. Enhancing these characteristics will drive the development of society, producing more intelligent, competent people who live longer and contribute more meaningfully, which combined with reduced crime and anti-social behaviour, could be considered another step in the evolution of mankind. However, moral relativism, cultural and societal differences, would make agreeing on what is considered a preferential human trait almost impossible, as it is a highly subjective matter. The end result of this is of greater concern; a completely homogeneous society with any aberrations or variety stripped from its population at birth has a distinctly dystopian feel to it.
For the few, not the many?
Equality becomes an issue when considering the regulation of genetic alterations. If the technology progresses to the point where height, natural body composition and capacity to learn could be enhanced, with cost being the only prohibitive factor, this could lead to a form of genetic elitism. A small, wealthy section of the population that would be able to afford genetically modified children could breed a new form of discrimination directed at those without enhanced genetics, with the perception that those without modification are subhuman. If CRISPR actively facilitates the view that some humans may be seen as superior beings purely due to their genetic modifications, the equality postulate, a form of Kantian ethics, would regard the technology as unethical, as it states that all humans have the moral right to be treated equally.
An “us vs them” mentality could be adopted by those who cannot afford the enhancements, creating tension between the two groups, stemming from the disadvantages the ‘unenhanced’ have faced from birth. This could hypothetically cause a net displeasure within the public domain and be seen as unethical from a utilitarian standpoint.
Another fundamental argument to consider when discussing the morality of gene editing human embryos is that no babies have yet been born with changes made by the technology. Until such a breakthrough is made, the unknown effects of irreversible germline manipulation on future generations appears a strong case against the advancement of the technology. Reduction of genetic diversity, creating human beings with identical genomes, may lead to the whole population being more susceptible to viruses or any form of disease.
In the wake of initial studies in 2015, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health in America, concurred unequivocally that germline manipulation “has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed”. However, research is continuing regardless, and if scientists succeed in improving success rates the line of opposition will weaken. Considering the freedom principle, which regards an action to be ethically sound as long as it does not deny or hinder the pleasure of others, clinically-applied CRISPR technology should not be pursued. It may benefit a parent to edit their child’s DNA, but there is no valid way to verify whether it is favourable for the child and future generations. If the technology continues to be developed, we run the risk of reducing people to their genetics. There is potential to undermine the humanity of the disabled, resulting in the marginalisation of those with inherited disorders in societies that actively seek to eliminate genetic diseases through germline intervention.
Where do we go from here?
The overarching dilemma when considering the ethics of gene altering research is ‘do the risks outweigh the rewards?’ The answer to this question only becomes clearer as we understand the technology more comprehensively. The more we develop CRISPR the more we can learn about its consequences, but in doing so we push ourselves ever closer to the precipice of genetic apocalypse. Can we really justify the risk to the future of the human race based on the perceived benefits of the technology?