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!

IMAGE CREDITS: Bigstock © Margarita Kheruimova; Portrait: BMBF © Laurence Chaperon

14 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Siegfried Kopler

    If the option is that a person will be born disabled but a gene editing can heal them and save them from this experience then it is the moral decision to do the gene editing.

    • avatar

      A moral decision? Does your morality extend to a baby in the womb that would likely vote for life frather than abortion?

  2. avatar

    If the research is treated responsibly and is carefully regulated I have no problem with it. Why wouldn’t humanity want to edit out harmful genes that cause ill health and suffering? I am more worried about the possible health implications of gene-edited food-like products entering our food chain. That sounds like an unethical human experiment to me.

  3. avatar

    No, among other things because it is still a developing field of technology, we may not know all risks.You wouldn’t repair an airplane or a car with mismatching spare parts, so why would you try replacing genes with mismatching ones? For healthy people this shouldn’t be a thing.

  4. avatar

    If for him genetic sic yes . I wont only healty baby.

  5. avatar

    Not an easy question. Besides the ethical issues, would humanity know wich edited DNA would be better for humankind than natural selection? For preventing serious and untreatable diseases should be a good start but then when to stop? Surely there are plenty of philosophy articles and books discussing this. I will have to start reading about it.

  6. avatar

    In a word: yes.This will start with “lesser evils”: e.g., correcting genes that cause a severe congenital disorder or death in the newborn (i.e., where the unknown risks of CRISPR are outweighed by the known risks of severe disease). If CRISPR is too edgy for people, it will start with embryo selection, which looks like will become viable quite soon and will be far harder to ban on precautionary grounds.As the technology’s safety becomes clearer, space will be opened for editing for the sake health, intelligence, happiness, and other desirable traits. I would argue we have a moral duty to ensure the people we bring into the world are as well-born as possible and have the best prospects for a healthy life of a flourishing.If the technology works, longer term the “luddite” and “egalitarian” societies that reject the technology will be left backward and irrelevant. This is particularly the case given that virtually all advanced societies have dysgenic reproductive patterns: the highly-educated do not reproduce as much, the least educated have the most. Already we are seeing low-fertility southern Europe and Japan slip down science rankings (see, e.g., Anatoly Karlin, “The Geography of the Noosphere”).

  7. avatar

    Great you could talk to the German Health Minister. Her answer was more positive than I expected (i.e., vague, but that’s better than knee-jerk opposition!).

  8. avatar

    Why wouldn’t you edit it? If it helps the baby being born healthy.

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