CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a tool which could allow genetic engineers to selectively remove disease carrier cells in a person’s DNA or target certain genes for enhancement of the human anatomy. Highly poised to become the most effective way to beat cancer, researchers have recently identified 120 new ways in which it could be used to treat the disease. What makes it so special is its ease of use and the precision with which the human genome can be edited.
The technology presents clear benefits but also raises moral concerns – such as the exploitation of its use for personal or financial gain, and these need to be addressed before it can be fully implemented in the future.
In light of the possibility to alter human genes, some scientists are already calling for a temporary ban on the utilisation of CRISPR as they do not see it as ethically or methodically developed enough for clinical use on the human DNA. Others argue that involving bioethics in the discussion in the first place could be slowing down the progress of science.
Disease could be a thing of the past
CRISPR has the potential to completely revolutionise the medical sector by altering the very genetic codes that make us who we are. It could eliminate disease in patients by stopping cancer cells from multiplying or make individuals less susceptible to contracting specific diseases such as AIDS.
Applying the utilitarian school of thought, this would serve to benefit the greater masses as the eradication of disease would benefit the human race as a whole, and could end considerable suffering for many people. Even those not using CRISPR could profit indirectly; if you eliminate a deadly communicable infection in one individual, then you protect the well-being of other members of the public by preventing such diseases from being passed on to them. From this ethical standpoint, the use of CRISPR seems a very viable approach.
With its gene editing process having a rapid turnaround from conception to implementation, it is certainly an ideal method for combatting a pandemic. Not only can the process be quick, but it is also very precise and relatively cheap; both features that could allow it to spread very rapidly. This quick growth would make the product readily available to the public, and thus steer it away from potential elitist use. In this way, utility is maximised, globally benefiting people from all walks of life with the inception of this new life-changing technology.
A necessity for man in space
Looking even further, space exploration now seems a very reasonable consideration for the preservation of the human race. With Earth’s resources progressively dwindling and the exponential growth of world population, the framework of common sense would suggest that scientists could start to look towards space as the answer. However, radiation in space is extremely harmful to human DNA and a solution to counteract this could be utilising the CRISPR editing tool. As such, continued progress in its research and use may be vital for human survival beyond Earth. Even now, researchers working with CRISPR believe they are doing so to assist the progression of the human race, and fundamentally this could be strongly linked to the positive character-based motives of virtue ethics.
The “Superhuman” Dilemma
The use of CRISPR equally presents some major concerns for its use in the future. One of such ethical concerns relates to the issue of human enhancement and the obvious implications of being able to remove disease and genetic disorders. This is presented in the fact that there is scope to not only fix but also upgrade human characteristics, making humans more predisposed to having better physical attributes or better intellectual capacity. This creation of ‘superhumans’ poses moral issues of whether it is okay for some people or groups to have deliberate advantages over others, and what kind of effects these enhanced features could have on whole populations and societal interactions in the long run. Discussions regarding this are essential as there is a strong possibility of prejudices or discrimination being held by those with or without CRISPR aided gene modifications.
The deontological theories of Kant provide a suitable framework in which to analyse the potential ethical consequences of implementing CRISPR in global populations. Upgrading some and not others, could lead to a division on the viewpoint relating to CRISPR, as those who are unable to attain it may be unfavourably biased towards the technology due to its lack of accessibility. With a loss in the public’s want for CRISPR, Kantian ethics would be violated and in this case, CRISPR becomes an unethical technique which should not be implemented. In addition, a lack of understanding about the long term effects of CRISPR could lead to a negative market reputation of the technology to potential customers, and this could once again discourage members of society from using it.
Furthermore, stakeholders – particularly those who have financial investments in the technology’s development, could egotistically look to abuse the technology for self-gain. It is unlikely that the whole population will be able to use CRISPR in its early days due to financial restraints. Against the freedom principle, this would mean that those unable to upgrade themselves will be hindered in relation to individuals who can.
The main issue at hand may link back to the fact that there is still a lot of speculation surrounding the technology. It is clear that the exact boundary capabilities and consequences regarding the use of CRISPR have not yet been exhaustively defined. However, the remarkable benefits of what the public stands to gain from this novel genetic tool cannot be ignored; and for this reason, it is our viewpoint that the use of CRISPR should be permitted – but with adequate regulation. To implement this most effectively, there is an urgent need for more public input and professional forum discussions involving all the relevant stakeholders (from political leaders to scientists), concerning the ethical implications of employing this technology.
Group 42: Alexandra Agbu, Thomas Jackson, Rowan Huggins, James Tubb