CRISPR and Moral Justification

CRISPR-Cas9, the newest of gene-editing technology, was used to correct a gene linked to a hereditary heart condition in a human embryo in a study published on August 2, the first official CRISPR modification of a human embryo. The technology has the potential to prevent virtually all genetic faults, including diseases such as HIV, Parkinson’s, and various inherited cancers. The ability to prevent such diseases would generally be considered positive, yet bioethics warn against the infamous “designer baby” – the hypothetical child of the future whose inherited characteristics a parent or doctor have customized.

Where can we draw this ethical line between prevention of unfavorable traits and guarantee of favorable traits? The prevention of an unfavorable trait, like a genetic disease, is thus a favorable trait, preventing inherited obstacles blocking future health. But “health” is also maintaining the day-to-day fitness and intaking a balanced diet, factors which can be inhibited by other genetic diseases.

For example, diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic variables and lifestyle choices. Those whose blood relatives have diabetes, especially Type 1 are more likely to get the disease, especially if their lifestyle does not balance diet and exercise. According to Dr. Patricia Wu of Diabetes Self Management, thyroid disorders correlate with diabetes: one-third of those of have Type 1 diabetes have a thyroid disorder, and the trend is similar with Type 2. The effects of thyroid disorders vary, but in the case of hypothyroidism, not enough thyroid hormone is produced, which can cause fatigue and weight gain, according to Mayo Clinic.

So, if genes can affect weight gain as well, then despite how hard someone with inherited diabetes and hypothyroidism try, he or she might not be able to achieve physical fitness. Therefore, reversing this inequality by gifting the embryo with these traits a higher metabolism or leaner muscles, etc.

But wait: in the history of homo sapiens, there have been times of shortage and scavenging. The humans who had energy-savvy makeups survived, and thus, passed their genes on. Most of our modern human population, 85% according to Harvard Health Publications, has these “thrifty genes.” Nowadays, with plentiful food and without the physical tax of scavenging, not only are these thrifty genes not necessary, but instead, they are a hindrance. Overly-effective energy conservation causes a tendency towards weight gain, increasing the risk of heart disease, strokes, depression, and more.

Thus, should 85% of us not be morally eligible for the metabolism upgrade? Furthermore, since a study conducted at the University of Australia in 2000 linked people with dark brown eyes to an increased likelihood of developing cataracts, people should be morally justified in giving their children blue eyes, right?

Flawed justifications like these prove that the ethical line is blurred and will only continue to be as CRISPR research expands. Developing a completely new system of laws for modifying humans will likely be based on trial and error, setting precedence after modified humans are born. Of course, working with scientists to modify embryos would come with a huge financial requirement, therefore directly creating a genetic divide of have and have-not parents. Looking generations into the future, it’s not so farfetched to imagine physical speciation between the modified and the aboriginal humans.

While I recognize the potential benefits of genetic modification, I do believe that genetic modification of any kind, even if to prevent nightmares like cancer, is unethical and unwise in the long-term. Its blurry lines can’t really be controlled by laws (once a few actually exist), it is only available to those with financial means, and truly, it will soon create such superhumans that Earth’s capacity will be overrun (probably much sooner than we all escape to another planet).

Instead of fundamentally altering our species, we should focus that time and money towards the people who are already alive. Why create a “smarter” human whose brain is capable of quicker information transfer when you can invest in a better developmental school system that teaches the equivalent muscle memory? That way, all children, not just children of families who can afford genetic tampering, can become “smarter.” Instead of creating a kid with blue eyes, maybe teach your kid that every eye color is equally lovely, and if that doesn’t work, just get him or her some colored eye contacts (which I imagine cost more than genetic editing, anyway).

Why change the “nature” when it’s far more achievable and sustainable to change the “nurture”?