It is unethical NOT to genetically engineer babies
This is a mirror of my post to /r/changemyview on Reddit.
Last week we heard big news about the Chinese researcher claiming that he had used CRISPR gene-editing technique to genetically modify two viable human embrios to be immune to HIV. What followed was a wide-spread hysteria, with many researchers claiming that those experiments were unethical, and some going as far, as to try and stall the developments into human gene editing altogether.
To me this seems insane. While gene editing, as any new medical technique, has its risks, its potential benefits are enormous. Making humans immune to diseases like AIDS is just the first small step. It is very likely that gene editing is what we need to battle cancer and potentially aging (which as of now has 100% mortality rate). Stalling the development of human gene editing by just one year will plausibly cost the humanity around 100 million lives, around the same as the number of victims of WWII, or the number of lives saved in the whole 20th century by eradicating smallpox.
When the stakes are this high, stalling the development of human gene editing is grossly unethical. That said, I do not suggest that we should reject all the standard medical research precausions and dive head-first into free-for-all gene editing. Rather I would propose that we should treat gene editing in about the same way as any other extremely promising experimental treatment.
Now, let me address some common counter-arguments to this view.
First of all, what if gene editing attempts lead to genetic defects, lowering the quality of life of edited babies? This is a common risk of experimental treatments. At least some clinical trials do increase mortality in the experimental group. We should strive to avoid it as much as possible, but in the end we’ll have to take some risk. It goes without saying that this risk should be made clear to and accepted by the parents. As additional consideration, note that knowingly giving birth to a child with Down syndrome is currently legal, even though the outcome of it is almost definitely worse than the risks of the gene editing.
Second, “this is eugenics, hence this is bad”. This is mostly an argument by association, not a rational argument. Eugenics is bad not because it produces babies with better traits, it’s unethical because it removes the people’s freedom to choose their partners and in some cases to have children. This is not the case for gene editing.
Third, “these treatments will not be universally available, it’s unethical because they will be only available to the rich”. Of course we should make it as widely available as possible, but it’s unavoidable that for some period of time gene editing will be expensive. But this is the case for each and every new technology: at various points in history this was true for Internet, clean water and food. If you can’t immediately supply the whole world with clean water, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t even start giving access to it to as many individuals as possible.
Fourth, what about “Gattaca” scenario, i.e. the stratification of people into edited and unedited, with unedited having almost no chances in life? This is a tough concern. The most unfair of the Gattaca world is the fact that the corporations were allowed to test their employees for having various generic traits. This is outright illegal already now. In most industries it is completely illegal to make hiring decisions based on sex, age, unrelated disabilities and even IQ.
Beyond that, of course there is and will be stratification. It happens already now because IQ is partially inheritable, and people are more likely to marry into their IQ strata. Some inequality is inevitable, and we should work to mitigate it as much as possible. But I firmly believe, that inequality should be fought mainly by improving the life of the lower quartiles of the population (in whatever metric you are measuring), not by limiting the potential of the higher quartiles. And in any case, ineqaulity shouldn’t be lowered at the cost of slowing the progress, because in the long run faster progress will make everyone better off.
Fifth, there are some considerations of religion. I would like to point out that in the modern secular world while we do have religious freedom, whenever religious beliefs come into opposition with some development that has big potential benefits, the religious concerns do not and shouldn’t take precedence. Consider abortion, in vitro fertilisation, teaching creationism in schools. In all these cases the public good superceeds deeply held religious beliefs.
To be clear, I do find some types of genetic editing unethical, for instance giving a child some cosmetic features on a whim, like unusually big eyes, especially if it can lead to unknown side-effects.