Should genetic engineering of babies be allowed?
Last week, my laboratory building hosted a for vs against discussion regarding genetic engineering. In particular it was about genetically altering children before they are born, which is the topic I will focus on for today: altering the genes of children before they are born.
I know there are going to be TONS of opinions on this matter and I ask everyone to be respectful in voicing your opinions on discussing with others.
Preface: I am a scientist. In fact, I am a geneticist according to my degree. I have a better understanding than the average person regarding this technology and its capabilities. That being said, just because this is my field, does not mean I support all advancements in my field.
1. First and foremost, everyone must understand that genetic engineering is possible.
There have been hundreds of advancements in this technology over decades and decades of work. We have adapted mechanisms of other organisms to use to our own advantage and to improve the state of the human race. As we have done for millennia. And genetic engineering is no different. Combine that with the ability to detect certain mutations that cause disease and we have the ability to prevent children from suffering from a debilitating disease.
Some people would call that amazing.
Others would say it’s wrong.
2. We do not know what all the genes in the human genome actually do.
This is a misnomer because people often hear that we have ‘sequenced the human genome.’ While this means we have the entire list of DNA in the human body (aka a 3,000 Mbp (mega base pairs or million base pairs) list comprised of only 4 letters), this does not mean we know what most of those combinations do. Therefore, we can (or more appropriately should) only edit genes that we understand (ie know the exact sequences of). In other words, genes related to disease are most commonly studied and would be the most likely/first to be altered.
There are ton of aspects to take into account when discussing altering the genomes of human beings, particularly unborn human beings. This list includes religion, trust in science, trust in medicine, personal beliefs, ethics, society, etc, etc. That being said, I will state my opinion on this topic in as unbiased, but scientific perspective as I can. aka the facts.
A. Genetic Disorders
Genetic engineering does have the potential to wipe out certain genetic disorders from the human population assuming the entire world were to adopt this practice. Many genetic disorders already come up during a pregnancy screen. Should genetic engineering be made legal and ethical, these genetic disorders could be removed from the population one at a time.
Most disorders and other illnesses relating to genetics are based on mutations. While some mutations are induced, others are introduced into the human genome due to environmental factors, such as UV damage. UV radiation can damage the human genome and the repair processes many not be able to catch all of the damages or does not repair them properly, thus introducing a new mutation. For this reason, as a scientist, I don’t believe we will ever see a point in humanity’s future where all disease is eradicated.
B. Trait Selection
Many people discuss the potential of creating designer babies, selecting the hair color, eye color, skin color, nose size, height, build, intelligence, etc of your child through genetics. While some people believe this possible, it is unlikely to ever be fully accurate or predictable. Firstly, not all aspects of what makes up a human is based on genetics. There is still the age old debate of nature vs nurture and, as society and its opinion of beauty and intelligence change, so will the chosen traits change.
Additionally, selecting traits for children has the possibility of negatively impacting the future of the human race. Genetic mutations have occurred for thousands of years giving rise to a wide variety of people. This is natural selection and each of those people and their genetic background have become what they are due to generations of environmental and social selection. To override that could actually impede on our species ability to survive in an environment. It could potentially make us vulnerable to our ever changing environment, which could take us years, maybe generations to recover from.
Lastly, giving the parents of a child the ability to alter the child to their specifications could actually breakdown how we see child-parent relationships. Each child would be made to the parents’ specifications and if the child doesn’t agree with how their parents made them, there is an additional point of stress between the child and parents beyond the already added stress of authority and rules. More importantly, it’s impossible to dictate personality with genetics. Thus, even if the child looks exactly like the parents want, there is no guaranteeing the child will turn out the way the parents want and even if they did, what happens to autonomy of that child? When do they become their own person and not a manifestation of what their parents’ desires?
Now as I said, I could go on forever, but I don’t want to bog people down with too much information because this is a heavy topic full of science in a variety of backgrounds and ethics. (and this is particular passion topic of mine that I could rant about for DAYS!) But I am curious to know if other people have an opinion on this manner and, if so, what is your opinion? How did you come to formulate this opinion? I am excited to have this discussion! 😀
What do you think?
Should genes be altered?
Leave your thoughts below!
And check out my discussion from last week:
“Importance of Reading“