Outlawed
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Outlawed

Why Outlaw Genetic Modification? Health, Safety, and Ethical Policy Perspectives

Cutting into the global debate around human genetic modification.

Last November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of the first genetically modified human babies. The twin girls’ embryos had been manipulated to in an attempt to make them immune to HIV. The announcement shook the global scientific community, stoking a decades-long debate about the ethical, moral, and medical purposes behind human genetic modification.

Many people have strong opinions about the ethics of modification, and many more are simply concerned about the unforeseen consequences of fiddling with the human genome. As a result, dozens of jurisdictions have outlawed certain types of human genetic modification. However, the science itself is promising, and depriving society of the potential benefits of improved physiological functioning and the elimination of genetic diseases is controversial in-and-of itself. So, among the jurisdictions that have outlawed or otherwise regulated genetic modification, is it possible that their protective policies are doing more harm than good?

What is genetic modification?

Genetic modification is a general term that describes a formal process that changes the genetic makeup of a living thing. Legal debates surrounding the genetic modification of food crops have swirled for nearly a decade, but new innovations have raised new challenges. Now, the hottest controversy in genetic modification revolves around “germline genetic modification” — where an individual’s entire genetic line is changed by alterations to the egg and sperm that created the altered embryo in the first place.

The cutting-edge technology at work in most genetic modifications is called CRISPR. CRISPR is a section of DNA sequences containing short repetitions of base DNA sequences that appear throughout the genetic profile of an organism, kind of like a blueprint. By cutting this single segment of DNA, CRISPR allows scientists to change the entire DNA sequence, adding or omitting certain traits or tendencies. The promises of this process spell enormous potential in medical science’s quest to wipe out certain heritable diseases. However, it also raises some serious eyebrows when it comes to the possibility of altering the genetic line for medically unnecessary, aesthetic, or even nefarious purposes.

Why ban gene editing?

Humanity has an unfortunate history of aesthetic obsession; to wit: eugenics. Societies have promoted certain skills, such as athleticism, or particular physical traits, such as eye, skin, or hair color in various ways for millennia — to the serious detriment of those who do not possess them. Peoples’ physical characteristics continue to inspire hate and violence among closed-minded radicals around the world today. If these skills and traits become pre-programmable — or worse yet, only accessible to the wealthy — there is no end to the potential consequences. In and of itself, there’s a firm reason to prevent humanity from accessing a technology that can let people pre-determined physical characteristics. But why stop there? Let’s keep digging.

Beyond the ethical implications of a creating potential Nazi paradise or Gattaca situation, there are also real medical concerns regarding editing the reproductive cells of a human embryo. Many scientists warn that genetic modification is imprecise and could result in unforeseeable health problems for future generations. Indeed, even if scientists can snip the intended gene exactly, there is danger in the unknown; this is particularly true given how vague medical science is on the larger relationship between each gene and the whole being.

Which countries outlaw genetic modification?

As of 2014, 39 countries have outright bans against germline editing, including Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. Many other countries regulate genetic modification, but the rules are less clear.

For example, India, China, Ireland, and Japan all have bans on the books. However, these laws have no enforcement mechanisms to give them teeth — highlighting one of the major critiques against outright gene editing bans. In a similar gray area, newly drafted guidelines in Japan allow gene editing for research purposes, but draw the line at the modification of embryos actually intended for reproduction. Other genetic modification rules in countries like Russia, Iceland, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Columbia are even more ambiguous.

In reality, money and publicity may serve as a better regulatory mechanism than laws and policies. The National Institute of Health grants funds for somatic genome editing research, but will not fund any projects involving the use of germline gene-editing techniques on human -embryos. Many advocates that once caledl for a global moratorium — including one of the creators of CRISPR — say that research and publication limits like these will help stave off rogue scientists experimenting with human life.

It is also important to note that existing rules across the world apply to editing at the embryo stage. To take it as far as Dr. He allegedly has would require implanting a viable embryo — thereby taking germline modification to the level of implementation that is almost uniformly illegal. And, as we’ve seen, for good reason.

Concerns about banning genetic modification

Granted, germline modification may raise problematic social and public health issues, but genetic modification is a much broader field than this one process. Medical professionals fear that the backlash against germline modification will consume public opinion around less-controversial technologies, such as somatic gene editing. Somatic gene editing does not alter reproductive cells; instead, it targets cells that have already differentiated themselves for a specific function. Although not infallible, somatic editing can cure fatal diseases and contribute to groundbreaking research. These amazing benefits that may fall to the wayside if the rules on germline editing aren’t better enforced.

What’s Next for Genetic Modification?

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing legal dialogue, policy makers worldwide have a rare opportunity to engage in a timeless and existential inquiry. What are the lengths we are willing to take for science, and where to draw the line for humanity?

Five months after Dr. He’s announcement, scientists and bioethicists from seven countries called for a global moratorium on all human germline editing. But, while germline editing is already banned to some degree in more than forty countries, the question of an international prohibition is complicated by real concerns regarding enforceability, privacy, and the security of ongoing medical development and research. Nuanced as it is, this latest scandal in the designer baby debate illuminates the multi-layered issues involved in the question of whether to outlaw human genetic modification altogether.

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Samantha Joule Fow

Samantha Joule Fow

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How will humans and the environment co-evolve in our technology-driven world? Samantha Joule Fow is on a mission to find out!