Temper CRISPR with suspicion

The 1997 film Gattaca describes a dystopian future in which human reproduction is completely controlled by the government through genetic engineering and eugenics so that society will produce the most ideal bodies and minds possible. The film follows a protagonist, born un-engineered, as he tries to make something of himself in a world where he is seen as less-than. Today, this future–or some form of it–looms nearer than it seems.

As technology advances, so does our capacity to study and understand biology. Humans have searched to observe smaller and smaller subunits of life until we found the smallest in the form of DNA. Though we are far from knowing and understanding everything, we know enough to look for ways to control DNA from the inside. One recent discovery that has been getting lots of attention in the scientific world is called “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) Cas-9”.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system allows scientists to edit the genome, which is composed of all the genetic information that makes up a person, and is analogous to an instruction manual telling our bodies how to build themselves. CRISPR works by targeting certain regions of DNA, cutting them, and introducing new mutations to the DNA sequence.

This process has loads of potential and some heavy ethical implications to consider. One of the most exciting positive possibilities is the ability to treat genetic conditions such as muscular dystrophy, hepatitis and certain forms of cancer. It has already been used in very exceptional cases to treat life-threatening diseases in humans. Just this past summer, CRISPR was used to treat a woman who suffered from sickle cell disease

While CRISPR opens the door to many benefits, it poses some tough ethical questions. While most don’t find a problem with editing somatic cells (regular body cells), there is also the possibility to edit germline cells (sperm and egg cells). We could, in theory, eventually eradicate certain genetic diseases by taking out the DNA that codes for them in reproductive cells, thus preventing them from being passed on. But if researchers eventually decide to edit the DNA in germline cells, they would be permanently altering future generations with no knowledge of the long-term effects. Plus, there is significant potential danger in using CRISPR on babies before they are born, as some research has shown that they might not live as long or they would die due to complications with the technology.

The power to possibly eradicate or prevent some diseases would be fantastic. However, this would inevitably come with the reduction in societal value of certain “undesirable” traits. One can take as an example the near eradication of Down Syndrome in Iceland, which was carried out by aborting nearly all fetuses that tested positive for Down’s in the womb. This is an awful form of eugenics that assumes that people with Down Syndrome don’t have anything to offer society. CRISPR will likely give us the ability to fix certain genetic diseases in babies before they are born. But what would that mean for people who are born with these “undesirable traits”? 

Human life is a miracle from God. The desire to alter this miracle makes it seem like we are ungrateful for it. Trying to create a more perfect human is a completely fallacious idea; there is no such thing as a perfect human, and there never will be. Focusing too much on this impossible idea distracts from the beauty of humanity in its natural forms.

Microbiology is particularly fascinating because its study allows us to see the intricacy of God’s intelligent design for life. I don’t see anything wrong with exploring and looking for answers to life’s big questions, because it only increases our appreciation for God’s design of the world. However, I think that the problems begin when humans think they know better and they try to make improvements to the basics of creation. We have to wonder when this ambition has ever yielded a truly good moral outcome. Adam and Eve desired to be like God and possess special knowledge, and now the rest of humanity suffers the consequences of death for their actions. In the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, people try to overcome creation by reaching closer to heaven, and they were dispersed all over the Earth. Clearly, things will only end with suffering when humans try to play God. Humans are limited, and things go wrong when we try to be unlimited.

Bible stories aren’t the only example. In one case, a scientist in the Netherlands was able to mutate a strain of avian flu so that it was capable of airborne transmission between ferrets, which respond to influenza similarly to humans. At the same time, another scientist in Wisconsin performed the same study and made the same findings. There was significant pushback from the scientific community, urging the researchers not to publish their discoveries. The concern was that if the studies were published, the information could fall into the wrong hands. Because the mutations were so few and simple to perform, it would be very easy for bioterrorists to create a virus against which humans have no defense, capable of creating a pandemic like that seen in 1918, an event which killed about 16% of the world’s population.

In our search for knowledge and our need to improve, humans are creating our own downfall. In most cases, we carry out research with the best of intentions. Scientists generally don’t seek ways to bring harm to humanity. In the case of the flu, the researchers were aiming to learn more about how the virus functions with the goal of bringing us closer to a cure. However, it clearly went too far, and it could have meant the end of life as we know it for many people. Even if humanity is doing what it thinks is right, it could inadvertently be bringing about its own demise by trying to push its own limits.

CRISPR’s current capabilities don’t pose much of an immediate problem. The possibilities of curing genetic diseases and improving farming are tempting. Nonetheless, CRISPR seems to reduce human life to a math problem or some throwaway scientific experiment rather than a miracle from a good God with a design and a plan for humanity. The eagerness to edit this design is evidence of a world moving further from God. We are not quite at that point yet, but I fear that that we will unwisely attempt to push our own limits and fall into consequences we should have foreseen.

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