How far has mankind gone into breaking nature’s law which governs life and death? Medical advancements over the decades have saved and improved numerous lives. Amongst them, genetic engineering arose and have since challenged ethics. Today, we have arrived at an important medical breakthrough in human history: embryo gene editing. This unfamiliar yet promising technique could bring about total elimination of inherited diseases. Should we say yes and dive into this newfound approach? We must first morally consider its implications.
FOR GENOME EDITING
Cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anaemia and Huntington’s disease: these are just 3 out of over 10,000 known genetic disorders that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time. An abnormality in the genome often results in debilitating effects on the particular individual and this problem continues to persist over generations as a cure has yet to be found. Some may argue that treatments and therapies have developed substantially but isn’t prevention better than cure? The prospect of genome editing may well result in total elimination of chronic diseases as a whole.
Existing techniques such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis has enabled the identification and selection of the ‘best’ gamete to conceive a baby with desirable stipulations. However, would it not be more convenient to alter the gamete to achieve the same objective with the prospect of genetic optimisation? Genome editing will be more efficient as bioengineers are now capable of targeting the particular flawed gene without the need of tedious trial-and-error. The role of genome editing in the medical industry is boundless.
In a recent NHS report, the number of organ donors has shown a declining trend. There is an urgent need of a suitable alternative approach to organ transplantation and the prospect of a non-human organ donor alternative called xenotransplantation seems attractive. Recent research used a gene editing technique (CRISPR) to improve xenotransplantation and indicated positive findings which entail the possibility of a constant supply of organs engineered to be safer for recipients. Deaths from prolonged periods on the organ transplant waiting list may well be a problem of the past.
From a utilitarian point of view, the action taken should lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. One must ask, how do you define happiness? Happiness is the joy of parents knowing that their unborn child does not have any health problems. It is the joy of grandparents witnessing a healthy grandchild born into this world. As the saying goes, health is wealth. The loss of health is the loss of happiness. The recent decision made to legalise research on genetic editing procedures on embryos by the UK government and HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) will help bring us one step closer to practicing genetic editing in fertility clinics. This would eradicate chances of abortion of an unborn child suffering from genetic related complications. Couples will no longer be advised not to conceive for fears that their child might inherit a disease. This movement towards genetic editing would finally bring about a greater population with healthier lineage.
Given that the solution to most genetic disorders today are limited to coping with the disease through painstaking treatments, genetic editing deems to be the ultimate solution. Undoubtedly, we should continue pursuing genetic editing in the medical industry.
AGAINST GENOME EDITING
Are we now recklessly stepping further into the uncharted territories of the genome world? The realisation of genetic engineering itself has already provoked countless of legal and ethical issues and we have yet to slow down. Treatments and therapies have already existed to combat genetic diseases, showing promising results. In addition, indulgence into genetic engineering may pave way to exploitation which may well result in a science-fiction nightmare.
The ability to eradicate genetic diseases by editing the human germline has raised some ethical concerns. It could be fabricated to create offsprings with superior traits such as better memory and muscle enhancement, to name a few. Consider this scenario drawn up by George Church, a professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School:
- Patients suffering from muscle atrophy diseases with good natured intent to engineer their embryo to prevent passing on the disease.
- Prospective, ego-centric parents desire strong-muscle gene so that their children will develop to become an Olympian.
Is this inherently a bad idea? Intuitively, this might create different classes among humans and lead to social issues. Applying Kant’s universality principle, the maxim “everyone has the right to edit their human germline” cannot be universalized as it is against most religious beliefs and more importantly, it is likely to create an uneven society. The tool to replace an undesirable trait with a superior one will discourage diversity in human, resulting in a negative effect as diversity has aided the survival of human race. It is the nature of humans to seek a competitive advantage over one another and with the power of editing genomes, the birth of ‘designer babies’ will not be far off the future. Moreover, the existence of an easy-to-use genome editing tool in recent events such as CRISPR forces us to confront the ethical concern once again. This will no doubt be detrimental to the effectiveness of regulation and international oversight.
By applying Kant’s 2nd categorical imperative: you should never treat human merely as a means to an end. Kant would rule against the use of human embryos in the process of achieving the aims of a disease-free society. On the other hand, existing techniques such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis which involves the selection of healthy embryos has already enabled parents with hereditary diseases to breed selectively without the need to edit the genome. So why is there a demand in genetic manipulation given that the effects of implementation are obscure? Additionally, couples with limited resources can resort to adoption, which is already a practice of norm in global population.
The consequences of genetic editing far outweigh the foreseeable beneficial qualities. For the sake of humanity, the best course of action is to leave the genome alone!
42: Yick Ying Siew, Kok Hau Sia, Ji Kin Ooi, Leonard Young