No Perfect Baby Just Yet
Genetic Enhancement Still a Controversial Topic
June 19, 2017, Bruno Jacobsen
In February 2017, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) released a report on the science, ethics and governance of genetically engineering human beings. This was spurred by the rapid development of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9. The verdict? Restoring health and preventing diseases is OK, but we should hold off on the perfect baby.
The report said that somatic genome editing (the editing of cells in a person that do not affect future generations) and germline genome editing (the editing of cells that affect future generations and can help in preventing heritable diseases) should continue to be the subject of clinical trials and more research. However, both still need public support and a strong regulatory system to avoid unintended consequences.
But for genetic enhancement, which means genetically engineering someone for any purpose other than to restore one’s health or prevent a serious disease, the report was a blow. Scientists delayed on recommending enhancement and asked for a public discussion and policy debate around one of the most significant future trends of our time.
This raises some questions, one of which concerns the development of the so-called “perfect baby.”
Will governments and the public at large ever favor and allow for somatic and germline genome editing that effectively designs a baby to be as their parents desire?
In an MIT Technology Review article, a survey found that 83% of US adults believe that genetically engineering a baby to make it more intelligent would be “taking medical advances too far.” Even for reducing the risk of serious diseases, 50% thought that it was still taking it too far. This suggests that public support for enhancement, and even prevention, is still a long way off.
A world where we can choose a baby’s height, eye colour, intelligence and even personality, which will not come cheaply, inevitably favors the wealthy. This poses an important and unavoidable ethical question: would it be fair to allow the wealthier to produce offspring that could be considered by many as “superior?”
While this might still be some years away, the ability to modify our genome is already here, and scientific progress is happening steadily and rapidly. We will need a public discussion around this topic and decide whether it is a human right or duty to interfere with the natural selection of our own species.