Is gene editing unethical?
- Gene or Genome editing is a “method that lets scientists change the DNA of many organisms, including plants, bacteria, and animals. Editing DNA can lead to changes in physical traits, like eye color, and disease risk.”
- The discovery that gene editing could be used to treat diseases came with the fairly-recent discovery of the DNA double-helix structure in the 1950s by scientists James Watson and Francis Crick.
- A 2020 Pew Research poll indicates that 63% of global participants (those surveyed in the US, Canada, Europe, the Asian-Pacific region, Russian, and Brazil) “say scientific research on gene editing is a misuse - rather than an appropriate use - of technology.” However, 70% said it would be appropriate to “change a baby’s genetic characteristics to treat a serious disease the baby would have at birth.”
- CRISPR in gene-editing technology is short for “CRISPR-Cas9,” wherein Cas9 is a protein enzyme “that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA.” This technology allows scientists to target and edit certain sections of a DNA strand. The first US patients underwent the CRISPR gene-editing technique in 2019.
Genes dictate what we are and how we develop. Faulty genes can cause serious illnesses. Editing genes would, therefore, edit the very makeup of the individual. Gene modification is a simple, fast, and cost-effective technology that can identify and cut pieces of DNA. The goal is to remove faulty DNA to prevent disease and illness. In 2015, for example, an infant was cured of leukemia using this technique.
Gene editing enables the preservation of human life and dignity. If a disease can be pre-eliminated, exponential human suffering can be prevented. A life without serious illness is, quite simply, a better life. Another one of the specific functions of genome editing is identifying and eliminating that portion of DNA thought to cause miscarriage. If miscarriages can be prevented, then human life is being valued and preserved from inception to medical science's full extent and ability.
Furthermore, inherited diseases are passed through families via DNA. These include horrifying conditions such as Huntington's, Usher Syndrome, and Cystic Fibrosis—just to name a few. By eliminating those genes that code particular diseases at the start, an entire family can be spared developing an otherwise inevitable illness, through all future generations of a family line. Treatments for these diseases are also extensive, often painful, and expensive. The need for treatment is eliminated by eliminating the illness. This is a grand goal, one which spares the potential patient any future pain and suffering resulting from a disorder that could have been edited out. Sparing a person's pain and suffering is the manifestation of ethics and, therefore, genome editing must be concluded as such.
In concept, gene-editing might seem innocent enough or so ingenious it can't be ignored. There's speculation that it could help prevent certain diseases, though this has yet to be proven. In any case, it's important to consider the moral and social consequences of editing genes in utero. First, there is the issue of testing. Obviously, to know in detailed depth how gene-editing affects a person long-term, experiments must be performed on human patients. It is unclear how the process will impact a pregnant mother or if it will result in the child's possible health consequences.
For example, one study in Hong Kong claims to have produced two children with a deleted gene that is susceptible to HIV. In doing so, however, the scientists may have created what is called 'off-target' alterations, putting the children at risk for cancer and other health-related issues. Likewise, there is the problem of consent. The person most affected by gene-editing is the unborn child, who is unable to weigh the risks and benefits or make their own informed decision. This doesn't qualify as the typical healthcare choice made by parents on behalf of their children; editing the human body's genetic makeup without knowing the dangers is an irresponsible gamble.
Children should be loved and accepted as they are. Gene-editing, whether for medical or non-medical purposes, is purely the assertion of preference by the parent(s) and is therefore unethical. No amount of scientific alteration can protect a person from every illness or enduring feelings of insecurity about their appearance in some way.
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