It has only been about a month since China announced the birth of the world’s first gene-edited baby and it has already sparked quite the controversy regarding the ethics of such a practice becoming mainstream. On one hand, of course, gene-editing could help humanity to avoid certain diseases, but it could also help us to gain other evolutionary advances that might otherwise take eons to evolve.
As such, a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicates that a surprising number of Americans are comfortable with using gene-editing technology to engineer babies who are resistant to a variety of common diseases and conditions. However, the poll shows that most would also draw the line at changing DNA in order to engineer children who are taller or smarter or faster.
Lupus, for example, is a chronic illness that could not only plague a child born with the condition, but more significantly, could burden the many people who would have to care for that child. Of course, the same could be true of any genetic disease like Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis.
In addition, the argument is complicated because the procedure is actually somewhat simple. Gene editing is a bit like cut-and-paste, but using biological materials. In gene editing, scientists simply snip out the section of the DNA code that they want to delete or repair or alter and replace it with whatever code is preferred. Altering gene cells in an adult human would only affect that patient.
Altering genes in eggs or sperm or embryos, however, would actually result in that child passing down the genetic alteration (and benefit) to its progeny. This implies, then, human intervention in natural evolution, which has profound implications that we cannot even begin to fathom.
All of this, then, is important to consider since the AP-NORC poll indicates about 70 percent of Americans are, in fact, comfortable with using gene-editing technology to prevent incurable and/or fatal hereditary disease in children. Slightly fewer Americans—about 66 percent—favor using gene editing to prevent the inheritance of a non-fatal, but debilitating, condition like blindness or as a means to reduce risk for chronic diseases like cancer.
On the other hand, nearly 50 percent of Americans oppose government funding to test human embryonic gene-editing technology development because we have no indication of its long-term effects. And this is a double-edged sword, of course, because without testing we cannot gather data that will help us better anticipate these effects.