Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Scientific progress has transformed our societies, mostly for the better. Yet it’s also important to encourage public debate about the ethical implications of new technologies before they become widespread.
Until recently, the idea of “designer babies” was pure science fiction. However, with new technologies such as CRISPR, the ability to edit genes is now reality. Gene-editing could provide cures for diseases including HIV and cancer, yet some scientists are calling for the editing of human genes to be banned globally.
In 2019, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, was sentenced to three years in jail for creating the world’s first gene-edited babies. His research was condemned as unethical and dangerous by scientists around the world, yet researchers believe the technology holds enormous promise, providing it is treated responsibly and is carefully regulated. For example, scientists believe that gene-editing technology could be used to reduce the risk of miscarriages. Indeed, research into the gene-editing of human embryos is already taking place in several countries, including the UK, USA, China, and Sweden.
Will “designer babies” be possible in future? The ethical implications are vast. Who will be able to access these new technologies? Could the rich edit their children’s genes to encourage certain traits, such as intelligence or physical fitness, while the poor are unable to benefit? Could gene-editing be used to reduce certain “undesirable” traits? Who gets to decide what can be edited and what is unethical? Is it even possible to properly assess the risks involved, particularly given that any edits will obviously be passed down to a person’s descendents?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Eric, who thinks we need to spend more time considering the ethical implications of new technologies. He argues that all technologies can be used for good or bad purposes, and society needs to think about them and consider the implications before they “play God” with nature.
To get a response to Eric’s comment, we spoke to Germany’s Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek. How would she respond to Eric, specifically in the context of gene-editing human embryos?
In recent decades, technological advances have clearly improved our lives. I’m thinking of innovations in the field of medicine, mobility or the development of the Internet that have made it possible for us to access information and communicate with one another worldwide. But it is also important that our society has guidelines for technical progress, namely our basic ethical beliefs and values, as expressed in particular in the Basic Law [Germany’s constitution – Ed.].
We all have to talk together, as a society, about the opportunities and risks associated with new methods and technologies as well as research results, and always ask ourselves critically whether we want what is technically feasible and think it is responsible. This affects many areas of technological progress, including the CRISPR method, which researchers can use to copy, paste or delete certain gene segments.
Would you edit your unborn baby’s DNA? Should research into gene-editing human embryos be permitted? What are the ethical implications? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!