Our DNA is a living record of our victories and defeats as a species. It chronicles, with remarkable precision, how we’ve overcome a multitude of plagues, survived hostile environs and evolved our extraordinary brain. It also holds our failures: the traces of a violent past, the threat of inherited disease — silent in one generation and then suddenly erupting to destroy the next.
Since Franklin, Watson and Crick deciphered the language of DNA in 1953, we’ve found that we’re all more closely related than we ever imagined, and that our genetic inheritances broadly govern our lives. We now know how and why some of us are genetically fated to suffer excruciating pain, to live in bubbles, and to experience tragically short lives. Until very recently, there was no hope for those who lost the genetic lottery, but this unfortunate fact has changed.
We now have the technology to modify our genetic inheritance: to rewrite some letters of genetic code, to delete some and to add a few as needed. Our DNA sequence, in many ways, has gone from being an immutable record of the past to an erasable whiteboard of our future.
To me, and so many others from the Global South, technological progress usually represents a means to reach beyond our particular circumstances — the limits of nationality, of geography, of economics and of physics. An invention by two American brothers in 1903 allowed me, a boy from dusty Bombay, to fly thousands of miles to work in snowy Switzerland. Rocket science propelled Neil Armstrong off the planet to set foot on the Moon. The internet has given voice to millions living under oppressive regimes. The discovery of penicillin allowed generations to slip out beneath the crippling burden of chance infections.
The list goes on, and I, for one, can’t wait to add genome editing to it.
To reach the people who need it the most, genome editing must be appropriately regulated and perhaps even made patent-free. If properly performed, genome editing could, for instance, prevent parents from passing on the gene for Huntington’s disease on to their children, allowing the kids to live a full life, even if they themselves couldn’t. It takes only a little empathy to realize that denying a parent control over such a lethal inheritance is plainly cruel. Certain communities worldwide, the Ashkenazi Jews, Finns, and more recently, several South Asian groups, have been found to be more likely to suffer from rare genetic diseases. This is a constituency of several million individuals globally who, in many cases, have their choice of life partners dictated by their genetics.
Imagine then, the emancipatory potential of genome editing for these millions.
Realizing this potential, however, will require that genome editing meet with societal approval. The typical response right now when you talk to someone about genetic engineering or reproductive technology is a reference to ‘designer babies,’ eugenics, Nazism, and other evils. These arguments have a very powerful emotional hold over many people, but in my opinion, they simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Numerous traits, both physical and mental, are too complex to ever be able to engineer, and a Gattaca-like future of ‘designer babies’ is probably just as improbable as time-travel. No serious scientist or ethicist is advocating for government mandated ‘genetic correction’ of the sort Nazism or eugenics implies. As for physical appearance, everyone has their own ideas about the ‘physical ideal.’ Not every visitor to a cosmetic surgeon comes out looking Northern European.
There are always going to be some who will want to use genome editing for nefarious purposes, but most modern democracies regulate new technologies using at least a measure of science-based policy. It is hard to imagine any 21st century government mandating genome editing or allowing its unregulated use. A precedent for such regulation of reproductive technology can be found in India, where a ban on parents using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select a preferred sex has successfully improved sex ratios in newborns.
It’s unfortunate that we seem to have lost sight of just how much positive change could be effected by these technologies. Even the more mundane and direct benefits of a healthcare system that is cognizant of genetic defects and can correct them are profound.
Imagine how much lower overall healthcare spending will become once a lifetime of medical care is reduced to one preemptive procedure. This will represent an enormous shift in how we think about healthcare, freeing overworked doctors at understaffed hospitals to provide better care for fewer patients and leading to the complete eradication of many untreatable diseases.
There are justifiable concerns about access, costs, and safety. Laws and medical standards regulating genome editing still need to be defined. The basis for resolving these questions must, however, include a recognition of the fact that this is a technology that cannot, by any reasonable ethical standard, be banned. The promises are too great – and the perils entirely solvable – to throw moratoriums and roadblocks in the way of research on editing human embryos.