Utilitarian bioethicists and transhumanists see the human genome as clay in the potter’s hand. Now that “gene editing” has been accomplished in China, some want to go full bore into embryo — which will one day lead to fetal — experimentation to rid us of bad diseases.
Behind the health issue, the ultimate goal is genetic human enhancement and redesign that passes down the generations, in essence, remaking us in the image desired by biotechnologists. Some bioethicists have called for caution going forward, based mostly on safety concerns, but also some moral qualms. Good for them.
Others are on a drive to pooh-pooh such concerns. One Oxford bioethicist says germ-line experiments are no different from having cell phones and computers. From the Daily Mail story:
Some say that gene editing is unethical because it will have unpredictable effects on future generations.
However this is true of any new technology. Who can predict the effect of information technologies like the Internet or smart phones on future generations?
My take is far different. To The Source asked my reaction, and here is one thing I said. From “China Steps into Brave New World“:
First, there is the question of whether we have the moral right — or indeed, the wisdom — to engineer and refashion a genome that was created by God or evolved over millennia (take your pick), since these alterations would forever alter the “germ line,” meaning they would flow down the generations in perpetuity.
Beyond that, there is the potential for unintended consequences. For example, the gene that leaves Africans vulnerable to contracting sickle cell anemia also helps them resist malaria. Do away with the former genetic detriment and you might also unintentionally destroy the latter benefit. (Surely, there are many other undiscovered such examples in the human genome.)
Indeed, human genetics is a field of such overwhelming complexity that we may never be able to determine ahead of time whether even the most beneficently intended germ-line engineering would do more harm than good.
These things always start with “health” as the rationale, but quickly devolved into eugenics and lifestyle enhancement:
Even if one believes that eradicating genetic diseases through engineering is morally acceptable, we have to remember that such biological redesign is a “dual” technology, meaning that if the technique can be done for health reasons, it can also be done for eugenic purposes, such as trying to promote attributes such as intelligence, beauty, strength, and capabilities — or eradicate those human attributes deemed undesirable by the engineers.
In other words, genetic engineering would unleash a regime of neo-eugenics, this time with even sharper teeth than the original oppression.
My bottom line?
Some say that these technologies are “inevitable,” that “resistance is futile.” I reject such pessimism. We are not mere flotsam and jetsam floating on a troubled sea. We (still) have free will. We can decide the kind of future we want.
We shouldn’t become Luddites and refuse all progress. But we also shouldn’t supinely await the tsunami of anarchic technological change. Now is the time to construct permanent legal and funding walls round unethical biotechnology. If we wait too long, it will be too late.
We stand at a decision point that Huxley predicted in Brave New World. We have free will. We can say no.
But I worry: People are exhausted by the unremitting onslaught of radical cultural and technological change. Thus, I suspect we will decide not to decide — which is to allow the most radical advocates to steer the ship.
Image by Oriel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.