The future is now. Genetic engineering, or modification of our biological genomes, has made tremendous strides over the past few years. This power would allow us to potentially find cures for otherwise untreatable diseases. But, as with many places of the intersection between science and humanity, we find ourselves in a tangle of ethical conundrums. Who can decide how to significantly affect someone’s genetic offspring?
A new technology, CRISPR (pronounced “krisper”) has recently seen numerous success over the past few years so much so that, when a group of scientists in China began using it to experiment on human embryos last April, the world realized we had to stop and tell ourselves “Wait a second! We’re not so sure this is the right thing to do.”
When the International Summit on Human Gene Editing convened during the first week of this month, hundreds of professionals from scientists to ethicists rigorously debated the ethical issues posed by the newfound genetic engineering technology. After the conference, they posted their conclusions of their conference online. Among their conclusions are mostly middle-ground strategies, such as allowing gene editing research on human embryos without going through the process of pregnancy or only allowing modification of Germline cells for instances of disease in which no other cure or solution is available for health and safety of the offspring (along with an understanding of safety, risks, broad consensus, and other requirements).
While the conclusions were general (as though were expected to be, as we are still in the baby steps of discussing the effects of CRISPR), hopefully we can get more detailed, nuanced approaches in the future.
The summit also concluded that we needed an international committee for detailing what we can and can’t do when it comes to gene editing, so this would definitely be a step in the right direction in light of different cultural norms with enforcing and overseeing CRISPR research.
Most of the solutions seem safe and plausible, but, in particular, why should we need a broad social consensus for proceeding with application of gene editing? Shouldn’t those decisions be made by a few experts, not a general majority opinion? We generally look at values of democracy and majority in making decisions when it comes to political or social theory. And it makes sense on the surface that, if more people agree with a solution, it will be easier and more effective (in a utilitarian sense) to carry out. But why should scientific theory (which has risky, yet pertinent health consequences) be decided the same way? The laws of science are never debated through majority opinion but, rather, academic rigor. If we’re going to take a empirical perspective (including risks, benefits, outcomes, etc.) of gene editing, then we should support decisions which are proven to be better, not by the ones which the largest number of people agree with.
All the while those who cry for greater scrutiny and more opinions pose unnecessary restrictions to incorporate a larger number of opinions that only slowing down scientific research.
Give the scientists what they need as soon as possible. Let’s hope we can understand this.