This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Jennifer Carter-Johnson, JD, PhD
The world of Gattaca once seemed a faraway place where some babies had genetic defects corrected before birth resulting in two classes within society. However, a recent report that a Swedish scientist, Fredrik Lanner, has begun to edit the genome of healthy embryos has made the movie seem ever more probable. This report follows on the heels of reports from China that two teams have edited non-viable embryos to correct for a blood disease and to make the embryos more resistant to HIV infection. Embryo gene editing experiments have also been approved in the UK, and while the U.S. National Institutes of Health refuse to fund such experiments, some state funding agencies are beginning to consider it. The eventual goal of these experiments is to correct genetic diseases at conception, saving people from living lives with Huntington’s disease or with genetic predispositions for heart disease or breast cancer.
There are a myriad of concerns connected with the editing of human embryos as discussed in the reports mentioned above. Usage of embryos for any research is controversial since some believe that embryos should have rights equal to a born person. Beyond the basic question surrounding all embryonic research, scientists have questioned whether we should be creating designer babies, citing concerns that the use of embryo editing might inadvertently create new diseases. Additionally, access to the technology might be limited due to the high cost, giving rise to a situation where those who can afford to edit their child’s genome will have the advantages of selecting for children who are highly intelligent, highly athletic and low health risks. In a society where class inequalities are becoming ever more pronounced, use of embryo editing could exacerbate the problem by unevenly allocating not only resources but also abilities to those with money.
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions to be answered relates to which genes should be modified. As an abstract concept, using embryonic gene editing to cure a disease is more palatable to many than choosing eye color and height, but identifying a “disease” may be more complicated than it looks. As researchers identify the genetic basis for conditions that impact a person’s health, it forces us to ask if those conditions are diseases or merely a variation on the normal of human existence.
Some mutations that increase susceptibility to disease are actually beneficial mutations in the response to other diseases. The mutation that leads to sickle cell anemia protects against malaria in people who only have one copy of the mutation. Mutations in the T cell receptor CCR5 make a person more susceptible to psoriasis and infection by West Nile Virus but protect against HIV and smallpox infections. Obviously, we don’t know all the mutations that are beneficial against diseases, merely that some people get more or less sick when confronted with certain pathogens. It is possible that super-healthy, specifically-designed children would be ill-equipped to defend against an emerging disease where some members of a genetically diverse population would have protection.
Other disease-causing genetic mutations may also shape traits that society views as a positive. For instance, some research links the genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder with high IQ and enhanced creativity. Would the individual or society benefit from ameliorating the former at the cost of decreasing intelligence and creativity? Conversely, if the intelligence and/or creativity are genetically linked to bipolar disorder, well-meaning parents, seeking to increase the potential of their child, may exacerbate a genetically related mental illness.
Finally, one person’s disease is another person’s normal, community and heritage. Deaf parents often resist cochlear implants in their deaf children. These parents don’t view deafness as a disability but rather a community with its own language and customs. This view stands in contrast to the views of many in the hearing community who view deafness as a defect to be cured. Indeed, most deaf people function well in both deaf and hearing areas of society. If embryonic gene editing became a norm, deafness might be “fixed” – a process that some in the deaf community would liken to genocide. Similarly, many in the autistic community refuse to define themselves as having a disease. Not too long ago, homosexuals were considered mentally ill, a view that has become anathema as research into and acceptance of alternate views of sexuality have grown. Understanding the genetic underpinnings of autism and homosexuality would open them to a similar debate about embryo editing.
Some variations from normal are not diseases, they are merely differences. Some diseases or predispositions to diseases mask a greater benefit to the person or to society as a whole under certain conditions. Still others are life threatening diseases that carry little to no benefit as compared to the harm. We don’t always recognize these alterations for what they are, which makes determining which genes to modify a very difficult task as embryo editing becomes more feasible.
Jennifer Carter-Johnson, JD, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Law in the College of Law at Michigan State University. Dr. Carter-Johnson is a member of the Michigan State Bar and the Washington State Bar. She is registered to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
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