Can embryo modification allow parents to “custom order a baby with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s imagination or Usain Bolt’s speed?”
Within the past decade, there has been an explosion in the use of CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing tool that allows scientists to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding, or altering sections of the DNA sequence, in science research. Yet the promising technology renews the ethical issues rooted in genetic engineering and brings up the question: of what practices and ideas could become a reality in the near future? What about designer babies– embryos that have been genetically modified to produce desirable traits, such as greater athletics or higher intelligence?
Published in August of 2017, shortly after the Nature paper make headlines
claiming that scientists have successfully edited a dangerous gene mutation that is known to cause heart disease out of human embryos, the New York Times article “Gene Editing for ‘Designer Babies’? Highly Unlikely, Scientists Say,” explores the realm of possibilities created by the advanced technology, including CRISPR Cas9. Written by Pam Belluck, a health and science writer for the New York Times, the article—reassuredly to many readers– argues that designer babies are “closer to science fiction than science.”
Claiming that it is “highly unlikely” to genetically “predestine a child’s Ivy League acceptance letter, front-load a kid with Stephen Colbert’s one-liners, or bake Beyonce’s vocal range into a baby,” Belluck states that none of those talents arise from a single gene mutation. Most human traits are just not that simple. Some scientists believe that height is influenced by approximately ninety-three thousand gene variations; thus, genetically modifying babies’ heights– among other traits– is not likely. Director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Hank Greely adds, “Right now, we know nothing about genetic enhancement.”
Even if genetic enhancement were to be possible, many countries– including the United States– restrict or ban genetic modification of human embryos. Additionally, pubic controversy plagues the notion of germ line modification, or genetic editing that can be passed down through generations. Working around the red flags of ethicality can be challenging and most individuals, including scientists working to enhance CRISPR Cas9, do not want to cross that line.
Yet, while unlikely, the reality of a genetically engineered generation, or designer babies, is not impossible. Executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, March Darnovsky, states, “we could all too easily find ourselves in a world where some people’s children are considered biologically superior to the rest of us.”