As technology continues to advance, it’s no surprise that a number of controversial technologies and practices has risen as well. At the top of the list usually sits genetic engineering and modification. While most people connect genetic engineering and modification with GMOs (genetically modified organisms), this process is opening the door too much more personal controversies. Examples include designer babies, which allow parents to essentially pick and choose the traits that they’d like their baby to have. Another is the CRISPR technology that has the ability to turn off traits that could lead to harmful diseases and disorders in the future.
For this blog, we’ve decided to do something a little different. We often come across controversial subjects while covering the healthcare industry, and we don’t always agree. Instead of just having one of us cover a specific controversial topic, we’ve decided to let two of our authors, Troy Diffenderfer and Connor Smith debate a controversial topic. Below are each of their responses, and as always, feel free to comment on your opinion on the matter!
Genetic Engineering and Modification
While it’s completely human to fear the unknown, this certainly doesn’t make every fear is rational. Still, we’ve come a long, long way — 540 million years by the latest discoveries. After all this time, we’re finally able to start directly influencing the very mechanics that allow our species to exist. I’m talking about genetics of course; the microscopic chemical codes that produce the vast array of organisms found on Earth.
Humanity has progressed from being a back-seat driver, to the pilot of our genetic vessel. New technologies like the CRISPR/Cas9 system are making genetic engineering and manipulation a reality of modern medicine. So, what is the reality of such advancements?
Eliminate Painful, Deadly Diseases
One of the biggest benefits of using CRISPR gene-editing technology in humans is the ability to remove genes causing serious, painful, and deadly conditions in children before they are even born. Take hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) for instance. This heart condition roughly affects 1 in 500 people worldwide. The symptoms include chest pain, weakness, and sudden cardiac arrest in severe cases. With genetic engineering and manipulation, we can accurately target these defective genes and “delete” them.
Currently, numerous other diseases are candidates for deletion through CRISPR/Cas9 techniques. Conditions such as liver disease, hepatitis B, sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, and Huntington’s disease are all on the agenda.
Human Right to Health
Despite the potential of creating healthier human beings, many are wary of CRISPR technology being too much a part of “God’s toolbox.” Still, I’d contend that the most morally-sound decision, when faced with the knowledge that your unborn child may likely develop a painful, life-threatening condition, is to use such genetic engineering and manipulation to give them the best possible chance of living a healthy life. To act in contrary might actually become akin to negligence.
Nonetheless, there is a long road ahead before we reach mainstream CRISPR implementation. Any potential, unintended consequences of passing on edited genes remain unstudied.
Another area of debate is the issue of consent. Children receiving gene-editing treatment before or after birth cannot necessarily agree to the procedure. Although again, if medical professionals had the ability to prevent serious illness via CRISPR and decided against doing so, would we even have a conversation over “violating a child’s rights?”
Additionally, genetic engineering and manipulation are possible for consenting adults. An upcoming study will treat patients with sickle cell disease with the goal of reversing the harmful mutation.
Prevent Superbugs and Antibiotic Resistance
Not only is CRISPR genetic engineering and manipulation useful for reversing current diseases, but also for preventing superbugs. One study demonstrates the ability to edit anti-biotic resistant bacteria until the organisms essentially self-destruct. This way, for every super virus that arises, we’ll have the technology to edit them out of evolution one by one.
So, should we do it? Yes. If we didn’t we’d be neglecting an amazing technology that could save countless lives. Are there risks? Absolutely, but what would evolution be other than trial and error? Humanity and our technology both are a result of evolution, so why would we stop now?
The Moral Aspect
Probably the biggest issue that those in opposition to genetic engineering and modification have is that it can be seen as altering the natural course of humanity. Despite your religion, many on the opposition view this as “playing God” and feel that it’s morally wrong to alter the course of human life. This also includes fixing those who are already suffering from a specific disease or disorder. In extreme cases, many fear that parents looking for designer babies will use them simply for the stem cells, and later put them up for adoption. Regardless of what you believe in, there’s no denying that genetic engineering and modification certainly make for a huge moral dilemma.
The Rights of a Baby
Another major argument against the use of genetic engineering and modification is the violation of a child’s rights. When genetic engineering and modification are being performed on someone under the age of eighteen, some argue that this is a violation of a person’s rights. In this case, you will alter your child’s mental, emotional, and physical makeup for life, without him or her having any say in whether or not it is something he or she wanted.
The Effect on Evolution
Another major aspect to consider when dealing with genetic engineering and modification is the fact that it will speed up the evolution process. Adaptations can take hundreds of years, and this process will accelerate that. While it might not seem detrimental, we still don’t know the repercussions of genetic engineering and modification. A lack of genetic diversity has been known to cause various other problems as well. For the entire history of mankind, there’s always been a balance in our genetic makeup. Genes have a long and layered history, and they often have three or four unrelated functions, which balance against each other under selection. Those risky variants that can, in the right scenario, say, make us better at numbers are actually helpful to remain in the population at low frequencies.
Opening the Door For Super-Viruses
One aspect that many don’t think about when it comes to this process is the fear that it could make us more susceptible to a major virus. The more similar that we all are, the harder it is to create vaccines that could prevent a major disease. Our diversity is also our biggest defense mechanism, and altering our DNA could be opening us up to any numbers of deadly viruses. While it would be nice to be able to eliminate various diseases and disorders, it could be detrimental to the entire human race in the long run.
We hope we’ve provided some solid counterarguments when it comes to the use of genetic engineering and modification. We’d love to hear your opinion so feel free to comment below!