The Ethicality of Encouraging Designer Babies

Individual Research Report [AP Exam Score: 5]

Designer babies, defined by Scripps Research Institute postdoctoral fellow Sarah Ly as babies “genetically engineered in vitro for specially selected traits from lowered disease-risk to gender selection,” have been a contentious topic beyond the scientific community (Ly). A 2016 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and STAT survey found that 65% of respondents believed reducing the disease risk of unborn babies through gene editing should be illegal (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and STAT). This finding may be unexpected due to the tool’s established potential to mitigate genetic diseases, an international health burden. However, concern regarding the ethicality of gene editing with its ambiguous effects on future generations and the potential for misuse can explain it.

Despite the notability of the CRISPR-Cas9 system as an advanced gene editing tool, it continues to pose risks to subjects. Regarding the difficulty of controlling cell modification, Daryl Sas, chair of science and engineering at Geneva College, and Hannah Martin Lawrenz of the National Association of Science Writers believe gene editing is gambling with a child’s health as “the application of an imprecise technology [CRISPR-Cas9 system] … will create significant genetic problems through its risk of off-target edits and insertions” (Sas and Lawrenz). These worries have compounded to create an impression that gene editing is unnecessary. This impression is considering the credibility behind standard prenatal genetic diagnostics and in vitro fertilization (IVF), which has been proven successful in numerous cases for avoiding genetic diseases without the mentioned risks.

Furthermore, the specifics of the effects of the CRISPR-Cas9 system are unknown, becoming apparent in designer babies post-birth. Based on Edward Lanphier, founder of biotechnology company Sangamo Therapeutics, and biomedical researcher Fyodor Dmitriyevich Urnov, “the current ability to perform quality controls on only a subset of cells means that the precise effects of genetic modification to an embryo may be impossible to know until after birth” (Lanphier and Urnov). Due to these limitations, unpredictable effects could arise within subjects post-editing without a guaranteed solution.

These risks and limitations have turned into disfavor for the CRISPR-Cas9 system. Regarding a previously conducted gene editing study centering HBB [beta-globin gene] in 2015, Arun Sharma, a stem cell biologist, and Christopher Thomas Scott, Dalton Tomlin Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Baylor College of Medicine, have concluded, “the HBB result suggests that dramatic improvements in gene targeting fidelity and specificity are needed before the CRISPR-Cas9 system can be used safely” (Sharma and Scott). This conclusion is supported by the referred study showing complications in off-target editing, inefficiency, and failure to persist in host cells, which could cause significant harm to subjects. Fortunately, further research and testing could minimize these risks.

Gene editing could also indirectly impact future generations, necessitating caution. According to Mark S. Frankel, Director of Scientific Responsibility at the Human Rights and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), genetic modification “poses even greater uncertainties related to risk because the interventions would be passed on to the progeny of those treated” (Frankel). Considering this statement, the AAAS has chosen not to condone any genetic modifications affecting the germline, which are the cells responsible for forming the egg, sperm, and fertilized egg. This choice is due to the lack of evidence regarding the heritable impacts of gene editing. 

Though somatic gene editing would not impact the progeny of designer babies, heritable gene editing would. As per Julia D. Mahoney, the John S. Battle Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Gil Siegal, director of the Center for Health Law and Bioethics at Kiryat Ono College in Israel, opponents like the AAAS have used this knowledge against “moving forward [with gene editing because] later generations may be affected and today’s experimenters do not know with certainty what those effects will be” (Mahoney and Siegal). This lack of certainty regarding the long-term effects of heritable gene editing has amplified ethical concerns, adding to established concerns about direct effects on designer babies. 

Consequently, suggestions have arisen to increase the clarity of the impacts of gene editing. Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, and Karen Rommelfanger, the program director of the Neuroethics Program at the Ethics Center at Emory University, have suggested, “The biotechnological enterprise must invest time in asking questions about its assumptions and its eventual impacts … [which] may be unanticipated by the scientists, but may emerge from discussions that include individuals with diverse expertise … [and] communities … affected” (Wolpe and Rommelfanger). By increasing perspective on potential impacts and bringing ideas into motion to prevent them, these discussions could minimize the dilemma of the unpredictability of gene editing regarding future generations significantly. 

In addition to the health effects, gene editing could become a dangerous tool by blurring the line between treatment and enhancement. In an interview with senior editor Laura DeFrancesco, the founder of genomics company Navigenics, Dietrich Stephan stated, “Already technologies like pre-implantation genetic diagnosis are being used to avoid having children with horrible diseases. So what is a horrible disease? Is a horrible disease a child dying a year after birth? Is a horrible disease deafness? Or not being a basketball player?” (DeFrancesco). With pre-implantation genetic disease and IVF already helping reduce the prevalence of genetic diseases, gene editing can be a perfect tool to be wrongly used in pursuit of producing elite children. When push comes to shove, it is hard to predict whether or not society will be able to draw a clear line between what one can edit or not. 

If we were to provide the public access to gene editing, they could ignore ethical boundaries. Dr. Stuart Newman, chair of the Human Genetics Committee of Cambridge, said, “In a society obsessed with competition and success, the worst barbarities imaginable could be rationalized if people thought that genetic manipulation might give their children an advantage” (Hayes). Society could use gene editing to irresponsible and destructive extents, as parents could attempt to edit their children to enhance them for unethical reasons. 

Even so, to argue the previous point, Veronica English and Ann Somerville of the British Medical Association question, “Social ‘engineering’ already occurs, so why is there such resistance to more substantial and scientific engineering techniques” (English and Somerville)? From the writers’ perspectives, parents have already socially “engineered” their children through school placement and parenting. Thus, gene editing according to parents’ wishes is not as unnatural and destructive as perceived, as they already have a significant role in building their children.

But, contrary to worry regarding the usage of gene editing for ethically unjustifiable causes, geneticists have doubts that they can enhance babies successfully in the first place. In an interview with technology editor Patrick Tucker, geneticist Ian Wilmut stated, “I disapprove strongly of the idea of [enhancing] an embryo … because it reduces children to consumer objects that can be ‘accessorized’ according to the parents’ whims. … [but] I am skeptical that genetic enhancement is even possible because the genetic control of many traits is so complex” (Tucker). The chances of gene editing developing to the extent of impacting a baby’s intelligence, eye color, hair color, and such are slim. Nevertheless, it is impossible to know whether or not the option to enhance children through gene editing will become an ethical nightmare. 

With the potential of designer babies becoming a practical option for parents, it is necessary to direct attention toward the ethical dilemmas of gene editing ranging from its health impacts on designer babies, its indirect effects on their progeny, and the possibility of babies becoming products customized by parents. Though gene editing can help eradicate genetic diseases, with the lack of information, it would be unethical to recommend such an option without proper bioethics regulations when the safe and tested combination of pre-implantation genetics and in vitro fertilization (IVF) exists to avoid genetic diseases. 

Works Cited

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Frankel, Mark S. “Inheritable Genetic Modification and a Brave New World: Did Huxley Have It Wrong?” The Hastings Center Report, vol. 33, no. 2, Mar.-Apr. 2003, pp. 31+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A101259984/AONE?u=j043905010&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=50e8c2b6. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023.

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