In 2018, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, genetically altered the DNA of embryos before implantation into two women. Both women were married to husbands with HIV, and the changes made to the DNA of the embryos would potentially make any offspring resistant to the virus.
Both women gave birth to children that are believed to be healthy. After Jiankui announced the birth, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to violating regulations in China that expressly forbid applying gene-editing technology to human reproductive medicine.
In America, like in China, there are divisions between some members of the scientific community and the government about the use of genetic engineering on the cells that will one day grow into a baby. In 2019, the House Appropriations Committee voted to continue a ban on genetically modified babies in the United States. Representatives of the House did not uphold the ban without reservation, with some saying they hoped the issue would be reconsidered in the future.
Researchers who oppose the ban say that it is overreaching and could stifle research that could prevent genetic disease.
So should we outright ban this research, or should America become a leader in this field of research?
The goal of gene editing is to make changes to DNA that could, among other things, potentially reduce or eliminate the risk of disease in a person’s life. This is similar in concept to what the agriculture sector has been doing for years with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that can produce crops resistant to drought and disease.
It is hard to argue with preventing disease in future generations or ending hunger. Except, there is a chance of “getting it wrong.” If we mess up the genetic information of a corn seed and the plant fails to grow properly, we can get a different seed and try again. In a human, any defects in the modified cell could be devastating. Once the modified cell begins to multiply, a fix would require injecting the original and all future cells with the updated genetic information – no easy feat when we are talking about trillions of cells in adults.
Assuming the best-case scenario, and all genetically altered babies grow into healthy adults, people could begin using genetic engineering for vanity or other means. One consideration is how genetic alteration may lead to the creation of a market for consumers (likely the wealthy) to choose the traits that they want in their offspring.
Do you want your child to grow up and look like Idris Elba or Bella Hadid? Would you like them to be over six-feet tall so they have a greater chance of excelling in sports? Perhaps you would like them to have an IQ above 200. This is one direction that we can take with designer babies, and although it is currently the stuff of science fiction, we may only be a few decades from it being possible.
Should Research Move Forward?
Britain is currently the only country that has approved research into altering genetic information in embryos. However, the law states that they must only use genetic testing to understand human development and to improve fertility treatments and prevent miscarriages. Once modified, the embryo must be destroyed after seven days.
Interestingly, according to Pew Research, U.S. adults are in favor of changing a baby’s genes to treat a serious congenital disease; however, an overwhelming majority rejected the idea if it would make the baby more intelligent. The same research also shows that the majority of people are against gene editing that relies on embryonic testing.
For now, we probably shouldn’t try to alter the DNA of cells that will become a baby until we know it is safe. Except we aren’t doing that because of the laws that prevent it.
To move forward, we need to publicly speak about how we could use genetics research for good, and establish oversight to ensure that people aren’t putting future generations at risk by making broad changes to genes that would lead to unforeseen health problems and inequality in society. In this way, hopefully, we would also quell fears about how modifying genetic information of cells could be used to make “vanity babies.”
The fact is we can only control what our country does. There is nothing stopping another nation from moving ahead and implanting modified embryos in women. If America became a leader in this field of research, we may be able to control the narrative and rules governing its application.