Would you allow genetic embryo editing if you could guarantee that your child would be born without a certain disease? Homo augeretis refers to augmented human beings. We possess the technical ability to alter DNA through in vitro gene selection. Scientists are already using gene therapy to prevent certain illnesses or abnormalities but we have yet to see it used to create designer babies. In 2018 Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui claimed to have used CRISPR to create the world’s first genetically engineered babies – a pair of twins – in an attempt to make them resistant to HIV. He was condemned by the international scientific community and was later imprisoned for three years. The whereabouts and health of these children have been kept top secret. In 2016, the UK government granted permission to scientists to conduct genetic manipulation on embryos provided that they were not carried to term.
Why is it important?
Laws that govern the creation of genetically modified babies vary widely internationally. Currently, using a genetically engineered embryo to establish a pregnancy would be illegal in much of Europe and prohibited in the United States. There is a strong international backlash to genetically engineering humans with some asking for a global moratorium, even for research purposes. Proponents cite the potential to decrease or even eliminate the incidence of many serious genetic diseases, reducing human suffering worldwide. But there exists the risk that unwanted mutations will be introduced. Further, allowing this to continue and expand beyond medical enhancement, could create a genetically unequal society. Naturally-selected humans who reject any form of biological enhancement, either because of religious, ethical or conservative beliefs or because of financial limitations, could be disadvantaged, leading to a fractured society. Beyond individuals choosing this for themselves, there is also the possibility of inequality between countries where some nations use this to gain an economic advantage or a military advantage by creating ‘super soldiers’.
What can businesses and policymakers do about it?
It is likely that using genomics to eradicate hereditary diseases will become more widely used. This represents an opportunity for businesses in the biotech sector should the legal impediments be removed. Businesses and policyholders should seek to address the prohibitive costs of such treatments in order to make it more accessible to a wider segment of society.
Science can’t be stopped. There is no doubt that clandestine experiments are already taking place in laboratories around the world. There needs to be strict regulation that governs human genetic engineering. And there needs to be worldwide consensus and transparency. In 2019, the World Health Organization launched a global registry on human genome editing. “We have a moral obligation to allow advances in science so that fewer parents have to watch a child die,” said former Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York – but many see editing as a danger to humankind. It remains to be seen whether the global community accepts this form of genetic manipulation or whether it invokes a similar global objection as nuclear weapons have.
By Faeeza Khan
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