One of the most controversial science stories of the 2018, was about a Chinese scientist, who has been claiming that he successfully has altered the DNA of a twins using CRISPR-Cas9, a relativity new, powerful and cheap gene-editing tools.
There are many questions and doubts about the scientific and technical aspects of this claim. Many scientists and observers of scientific community debunked the claim, and many others have been raising their concerns over the long-term effects of using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology on humans.
Let’s forget all about the validity of this claim for a moment. Even if this scientist lied to us, you can be sure that somewhere, some research groups are working on this issue right now and we will have a CRISPR-Cas 9 modified and verified baby very soon.
So let’s talk about moral aspect of this news.
Before jumping to the discussion, there is one other important issue that we should consider. The CRISPR-Cas 9 technology has the power to manipulate the germline DNA. In another word, when you make a change in these genes, this altered genes can be inherited by the next generations. So, it is not just about making a prefer changes for your baby, but you have the potential tool to create changes which will pass to all coming generations after your child too.
For example, you can make your child immune to a specific disease and also make their children immune to that too. But why stop there? You can potentially, miniplate the DNA of your unborn child to help her/him to have a higher IQ, higher bones and muscle density and even choose their eye colour, height, colour skin, etc.
So, is it ethical to decide the fate of your children and even next generations after her/him?
We can approach this question at least in two different ways.
Shame on those who are meddling with the natural way of things
Who are we to decide the fate and future of our children and even their children? Who says that we can play God for them? What will happen to the people of this planet, if everyone has the power to design their next generations? Everybody will go to create a more intelligence, healthier, beautiful – whatever that socially accepted as beauty in their time – and stronger child and grandchild. Soon enough – even if nothing goes wrong – we will kill all the diversities. People will converge toward the same shape and abilities. What is the point to living in a world that everybody will genetically have modified to their limits? We will be killing every aspect of our humanity by producing a generation that will converge toward one model.
This is just the best-case scenario. What if such a technology will be limited to a rich and powerful class? There will be a minority with all the power and wealth and now with the superiority of body and mind. We will enter the new age of slavery.
And what if we screw something in the process? What if we create some unintentional and dangerous bio trends? Some illness perhaps? What if we will destroy some unknown system in our body and make us vulnerable in future? We will be doomed.
So How can we remotely justify such an intervention in the natural course of the events? How it could be considered as an ethical endeavor?
Shame on those who are not meddling with the natural way of things
The second approach is putting the visors in a different angle.
what will you do, If I told you there is a way to make sure that your kid never ever is going to have dementia? There is a way that she is never going to get AIDS? If there is a way that your child will never get any kind of known cancers?
Let’s start with the immediate results of such a modification: your children. If you are a parent, probably the future of your children is one of your priorities. You are overworking to save money for their better education with the hope that they will be more successful in future. You pay lots of money for their medical insurance to be sure that they will be healthy. If you can, you will expose your children to different arts, sports, skills and resources to guarantee their success and well being in the future.
Now, what will you do, If I told you there is a way to make sure that your kid never ever is going to have dementia? There is a way that she is never going to get AIDS? If there is a way that your child will never get any kind of known cancers? And you can guarantee it with a cheap and reasonably safe technique, and you can do it even before your kid born? More than that, you can be sure that all of her/his children also will be immune to all of these problems?
If you know you can immune your child, then is it ethical to not do that? This time the question changes a little. We are not asking more than if doing such intervention is moral or not; we are proposing not doing it could be considered unethical.
In the next step, let’s widen the range of our questions. You will do whatever you can to equip your children with useful skills and help them to increase their mind power. What if you have an option to be sure that your children will have a higher IQ and could be smarter? If you don’t act, doesn’t mean that you choose to ignore that possible better future for your kid? One day your child will ask you: “You could make me smarter so I would be more successful and happier. Why didn’t you do that?” What would be your answer?
In this view, if we can do such a thing the question is “how not doing it will be justified ethically?”
There are also arguments about longer effects too. Some can argue that the role of the education, society and culture have such a substantial impact that even two exactly same people would diverse and will use their talents in different ways. And even more, importantly having, for example, higher IQ will not guarantee your success if you don’t work hard. And even if all people reach the limit of their natural IQ, then the role of hard working and willingness to use of this capability become more critical.
So not only using such technology is ethical but also not using it could be considered un-ethical.
What is ethic?
Ok, I am not really asking this question, and defiantly I am not going even to try to answer it. For centuries philosophers have been working on this subject.
Instead of coming up with a definition of ethics, maybe it would be a good way if we just remember that ethics – regardless of your interpretation of it – is a construct.
We construct our ethical values and ethical system based on our experiences and our cultural, geographical, spiritual, traditional and many other timely values. These values are changing through the time and based on our experiences. There are many examples of how the negative ethical values during the time change into positive and vice versa.
When we accuse the other side of the debate of being unethical, we probably will lose the possibility of rational debate.
The gene editing and especially technologies like CRISPR-Cas 9 which makes these editing both cheap and also inheritable, will add on our experience. It is a technology, with an amazing and colossal power (and yes, with high power should come great responsibility). There is no doubt that you can think about dozens and hundreds of applications of such a technology that right now categorised under the positive or negative columns.
We should discuss the pro and con in every and each application. But it is a good idea that during this discussion, we don’t use the ‘Ethic’ gun. This is very subjective and timely and also – like gene editing – is a very powerful tool. When we accuse the other side of the debate of being unethical, we probably will lose the possibility of rational debate. We will enter the realm of ideologies, and each side will try to prove that their set of values are more ‘valuable’.
Maybe it would be possible to have a discussion about pro and con of a technology – case by case – without villainizing the other side and using the power of ‘ethics’. The debate about a new technology could exist between the ‘technophobia’ and ‘technophilia’.