CRISPR gene editing is an example of a technology that can be found in a futuristic novel of the previous decades. CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a technology being improved by geneticists every day that already has the potential to correct some forms of blindness and deafness in human beings. While the actual science behind the technology is fascinating in its own right, only a certain demographic is interested in debating the ins and outs of the biology behind CRISPR. The ethical questions raised by such gene editing is sure to elicit a response from nearly everyone who hears about CRISPR.
To be sure, it is easy to exaggerate the effects of CRISPR. Dramatic concerns are raised whenever new technology is introduced to the mainstream population. Many times, these concerns turn out to be unwarranted, at least in part. However, the more dramatic concerns of those who claim that the technology could lead to an unequal proportion of male and female children may not be entirely irrational. Most scientists concur that CRISPR is years away from being used as a sex selection tool, but the brilliance, and perhaps danger, of CRISPR lies in the fact that the same broad mechanism of gene editing can be used for many different purposes. For instance, CRISPR has been used to cure blindness in humans and engineer malaria-free mosquitos.
So, the debate in which society should preemptively engage is how the government will regulate the technology, since it is reasonable to assume that scientists will be able to do many of the things society is most worried about in less than 50 years. For instance, IQ and race could be changed via CRISPR, but the thought of parents being able to select a different race for their child, or screen to determine their child’s IQ certainly sounds disturbing to many Americans.
Personally, I see the debate surrounding CRISPR as one involving ethics and more pragmatic considerations. From a practical standpoint, I do not see society at large benefitting from increasing one sex through CRISPR technology. Gender ratios are naturally fine tuned, and it would be irresponsible of parents to cause massive demographic issues by purposefully selecting their child’s sex. The potential practical issues can be easily observed by considering the effects of CRISPR on gender ratios, but race introduces innumerable other issues. How would children feel growing up with parents of different races? How would the nature of racism in the nation change if race was no longer a strictly immutable characteristic?
Even thornier than the practical are the ethical issues. At the heart of the ethical debate in my view is to what extent parents have the right to choose their child’s genetic characteristics. Think about the abortion debate; on one side of the issue are those who believe that a woman has an ultimate right to terminate the pregnancy at any point. On the other side, there are those individuals who appeal to religious arguments or the inviolability of a human, even in embryonic form. Then, there are many in the middle who support first, but not late term abortions. Take these basic ethical standpoints on the issue of abortion and consider how spirited the debate would become if parents had the ability to choose their child’s hair, eye, and skin color. Of course, the parent cannot ask the child for permission to make these changes, but neither can a mother ask permission to terminate the pregnancy.
Personally, I simply cannot endorse or denounce CRISPR. My untutored reaction is that it should be used to cure illnesses but not change phenotypic traits or IQ. But what exactly is my grounding for that statement? Am I making a troubling normative claim by saying curing Down Syndrome should be a parent’s right, but changing hair color is off limits? What I do know is that ethicists and citizens alike need to be grappling with the practical and ethical side of CRISPR sooner rather than later, for if one thing is certain, technological advance does not slow down or stop once it has begun moving forward.