CRISPR is a gene editing technique that allows us “for the first time to precisely alter, delete or rearrange the DNA of nearly any living organism, including us” (Specter, 1). CRISPR is an exciting new frontier in science insofar as gives us the means to correct major genetic flaws such as muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and one form of hepatitis. Researchers are also exploring the possibility of eliminating HIV from the DNA of humans using gene editing or using CRISPR to engineer crops that are resistant to pests, eliminating our dependence on pesticides like Roundup. But despite its promise, the prospect of editing human genes – either to eliminate undesirable traits or selecting for desirable ones – raises some ethical dilemmas for us to consider.
Firstly, like most techno fixes, we have no idea how small changes we make in a genome will behave long-term and on large scales. A snowball effect might see us irreversibly lose control. At this point, we don’t know enough about the human genome to fully comprehend the potential risks of using CRIPSR, but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to explore its potential.
When it comes to gene editing on humans specifically, many argue that despite its promise for reducing human suffering worldwide, it is unnatural and considered “playing God”. I agree to some extent with what Marcy Darnovsky had to say about how opening the door to one line of gene modification will open the doors to all of them. Everyone would agree that life would be better without diseases that decrease quality of life and that said diseases are undesirable traits that should be eliminated from the gene pool. But if I know anything about humans, it is that we are conceited, self-serving and short sighted. I can see how it would be a small step going from removing genes that cause disease to removing genes that cause crooked teeth and acne and otherwise cosmetically undesirable human afflictions.
To close, let’s get really dystopian for a minute. I can foresee a future where the use of CRISPR could echo the eugenics movement of the early 20th century in that if this technology progresses and we become gene editing wizards, perhaps carriers of certain diseases may be forced to use gene editing when they choose to reproduce, similar to how individuals deemed “feebleminded” underwent forced sterilization.