A few years ago, Chinese scientist He Jiankue announced the birth of gene-edited twins (and perhaps a third child), using CRISPR technology. Specifically, he was able to make the twins resistant to HIV by modifying the “gene responsible for a cell receptor called CCR5.” Prior to this event, gene editing had been studied in many labs, but on animals, not humans.
Since then, the ethics using gene-editing technology has become a hotly debated topic. If scientists could edit a person’s genes to protect him from certain diseases and disorders, perhaps they could also edit them to look a certain way and even enhance their cognition and athleticism.
In a recent debate hosted by Intelligence Squared, a pair of experts on opposing sides took on this question of whether society should “use gene editing to make better babies.” On the side arguing in favor were geneticist Dr. George Church and social scientist Amy Webb. On the other side were policy advocate Marcie Darnovsky and philosopher Françoise Baylis.
Naturally, the scientists who argued in favor framed the issue in terms of health, likening gene editing to any other kind of treatment like smallpox inoculations or Covid vaccines — indeed, Church often conflated the gene therapy used in therapeutics with altering a person’s genes before they were born. While it was theoretically possible for parents or governments to use gene editing to bring about a superior race of human beings, Church and Webb argued that regulations could be established to prevent such an outcome and ensure that gene editing would only be used to cure ailments like Alzheimer’s disease.
By contrast, the policy director and philosopher arguing against gene editing framed the issue in terms of its impact on societal values, conjuring images of dystopias like those in the movie “Gattaca” or the novel “Brave New World.” Those who could afford to enhance their children’s DNA would do so, and those who couldn’t would assume a second-class status. If anyone thought the inequality of today’s societies was bad, it would pale in comparison to a future society led by genetic elites overseeing diseased masses of inferior human specimens.
Unfortunately, because the two sides framed the debate to suit their arguments, nearly all that was said spiraled into straw men arguments that went nowhere. Those in favor of gene editing mostly argued that being as healthy as possible was good, and those against gene editing mostly argued that enhancing certain individuals at the risk of marginalizing non-enhanced individuals was bad.
In many ways, the argument had parallels with the great science fiction short story “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling. The main characters of the story are genetically enhanced scientists who are trying to control a hive of alien insects to use against a rival tribe of cybernetically enhanced humans. Those in favor of gene editing resembled the genetically enhanced population with their emphasis on individual human perfection while those who opposed gene editing resembled the cybernetically enhanced population with their focus on societal perfection.
Going by the logic of this debate, gene editing to make better babies would be okay, so long as it only applied to health and was equitable in its application. If these conditions couldn’t be met, then it isn’t worth it.
If this seems like an unsatisfying conclusion to the issue, that’s because it is. There are two key concerns with gene editing, and they aren’t health and equity. Rather, gene editing opens up the moral questions of whether it is safe and right.
How many unborn babies will die before doctors can safely modify their genetic code to manifest certain qualities? One can refer to these unborn children as embryos all they like, but they are still human beings with souls and the potential to develop into fully grown adults.
Is it okay to experiment on embryos, keeping the ones who respond to gene editing and killing the ones who don’t? He Jiankui received donated embryos from at least eight different couples for his experiment. What happened to each of them?
Even the debaters against gene editing saw little problem with surrogacy and IVF, which necessarily lead to many killed and discarded babies. This was even put forward as an alternative solution to the problem of genetically inherited diseases.
And who has the authority to allow a procedure that would alter a person’s genes for whatever reason? Whether it’s a government wanting to control its population or a parent wanting to customize her own baby like some kind of Build-a-Bear, the absolute corruption that would come with such absolute power is inevitable. Even with the best of intentions (which could mean anything in amoral postmodern society), no one should have a say in another person’s DNA, not even the parent.
This question of authority becomes especially important in light of the Covid vaccine mandates. If governments and governing bodies can mandate vaccines, does anyone doubt that they would also mandate gene editing to “optimize” their population’s “health”? It’s all too easy to imagine an idiot in Beijing or Washington D.C. looking to fix his bad governance by somehow amending his population’s genetic composition.
In light of this, I would like to directly address these two concerns that the debaters neglected. First, no baby’s life should be sacrificed on the altar of scientific progress or parental preference. All human life is precious and an end in itself, not a means to some supposedly greater end.
Second, no one has the authority to violate an individual’s bodily autonomy, even for the purported reason of making that person healthier and better suited to his environment. This can and will be abused, giving godlike powers to fallible human beings.
Perhaps more telling about this issue itself is that the experts debating it seemed oblivious to its main dilemmas. Both sides blithely apply a utilitarian calculus in their arguments (i.e., what would serve the greater material good?), thinking little of what it means to be human in the first place. Because of this, both sides ended up horribly mistaken in their conclusions.
Being fully human is more than optimizing one’s genes or harmonizing one’s role with others in an equitable society. It is being a truly free creature made in the image of God. Once this core principle is lost, both the individual and society as a whole are lost, regardless of what modern science makes possible.