Ethicality or Advancement: That is the Question

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Friday, April 7th, 2017
Yoojin Cho

"Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience" - Albert Einstein.

As I walk back home, pondering upon the amount of homework awaiting me and envisioning my hopeless future, I see a clique in front of me. They are superior in every way: they are rich, physically beautiful, intelligent … and artificial. Society has a set place for them way up in the social hierarchy, a place I will never reach. Although we live under the same sky, there is a clear division between us: I am ordinary, but the girls in the clique have been designed. Unfortunately, I will never catch up. Ever...

Not far in the future, this scenario will no longer sound so far-fetched. What is implied in this writing? What makes the child writing this feel less superior to the clique? The lively issue of designer babies is currently debated as a matter of not only science but also of society and ethics.

CRISPR-Cas9 system is a technology harnessed by scientists to develop designer babies. CRISPR-Cas9 encompasses so much potential because it can manipulate the gene of an organism by the editing guide RNA (gRNA) with the genetic sequence of interest. Therefore, CRISPR enables scientists to add, excise, or modify a particular gene. Shockingly innovative, but dangerously manipulative.

Before investigating into where we are with this technology, the history of the designer baby and the events that contributed to the advancement should be understood. The idea of manipulating the genes of an individual first emerged after succeeding in genetically modifying plants and animals, which displayed resistance to diseases. This advantageous trait enabled the farmers to conserve money and resources. The progress begged the question of: "why not apply this to humans?" In 1978, the first baby to be conceived by in vitro fertilization was born. This major breakthrough marked the start of future experiments with an embryo's genes and instilled in scientists the hope of extensively engineering the genome. In 1991, an experiment aimed at transferring somatic genes of a cell conducted using the viral vector. This experiment proved the rapid development in the science community, and convinced the scientists of the potential dormant within gene manipulation. Not long ago, in 2009, clinics started offering prospective parents the option to choose their children's physical traits using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD has for long been used as a procedure to identify genetic defects within embryos created by in vitro fertilization. By providing background and serving as stepping stones, these events along with CRISPR will open the door to the future Designer Baby Era.

 

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Despite the good intentions, the concept of designer babies remains controversial. Some argue that gene modification of embryos may enhance the quality of life through treating inherited medical conditions. On the other hand, some argue that this is undermining the dignity of life; humans are playing God. Furthermore, designer babies may exacerbate the economic gap between the rich and the poor; the rich who have money will actively modify the genes of their baby, and the poor who don't have money will not be able to modify their genes. Here, the rich will only go up the social hierarchy by getting the preferred traits, and the poor will be disadvantaged, without the "superior" traits.

Regarding how proximate humans are with designer babies, the question of "what is the moral parameter science should not pass?" has surfaced. With diverse standpoints from scientists and experts, we will not reach a clear answer to this question; however, as an evolving community, we can congregate and begin the bioethical conversation: Greed vs. Morality.

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