CRISPR, Ethics, and Evolution

Some of you may remember the genetically edited babies that were produced in China which was first publicized in late 2018.  While never published in a scientific paper, a scientist from China claimed to have used the CRISPR procedure to genetically modify two sets of children to give them the gene that confers resistance to HIV. We have previously discussed this mutation so it is not our purpose to repeat that here. Instead, we are going to discuss the broader implications of CRISPR and the ethics of genetically modifying humans.

First of all genetic modification is not new. We’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals for years.  However, it spilling over into humans has long been a frightening possibility that was on the horizon. Now it has happened.  CRISPR, which is what is used for this form of genetic editing, is based on a bacterial enzyme. The acronym itself stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats”.  Clearly, there is a reason everyone uses the acronym rather than the term itself. The key takeaway is that CRISPR is the ability to insert DNA into an organism.

The exact process of CRISPR is a little technical. Basically in the wild, the bacterial enzyme takes a piece of viral DNA from any virus it is exposed to and, using an RNA to control where it is placed, drops the viral DNA into its own genome. The bacteria use this like an immune system. It catalogs all the viruses it is exposed to in order to be able to appropriately respond to them if it sees them again. In the early 2000s, scientists figured out how to edit the RNA controlling where the DNA was placed to control where the bacteria put the DNA. That opened Pandora’s box as it were.  We now have the capability to target any location in any genome and place whatever we want in that location. The implications are massive. Not only can we create flowers with weird colors or animals with odd patterns, but we can also genetically engineer whole new features into anything we want, at least in theory.  Do we want a fish with three eyes? We can make it. A plant that has no leaves? Sure. Of course, some of these things seem a bit fanciful but theoretically, they could be in the future.  So too could experimentation in humans.

CRISPR does have issues. It makes a lot of mistakes. It has been known to cause parts of the DNA to stick places they are not supposed to, for example.  The process is far from perfect. This is why it has been largely relegated to plants and animals until very recently.  Humans represented too great a risk.  Further, making these changes has basically no controls. There are millions of gene sequences freely available on the internet. Some aspiring Dr. Frankenstein can go on the internet, download the sequences they want and, following some very basic protocols, create anything they want with nothing to stop them. This is a very worrying and frightening possibility that could not have been imagined ten years ago.

Until 2018, the overwhelming consensus among bioethicists and geneticists was not to do anything to humans that could be inherited. In other words, CRISPR could be used to treat genetic diseases in adults and children, but could not be used in vitro to give new traits to developing embryos.  There was to be no change that could be passed from parent to child, even though this was possible.  That went out the window when the Chinese geneticist edited these infants.   This raises all sorts of ethical questions, particularly as Christians.

I want to emphasize that we should not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. In other words, just because CRISPR can be used for evil, does not mean we should condemn all uses of it as evil.  It is a tool we can use to perform both good and evil. In the right hands, a butcher’s knife is excellent at cutting slices of meat. In the wrong hands, the same knife can be used to murder someone. Nothing about the knife changed. What changed is how it was used. The same is true with CRISPR. So how should we view genetic editing on humans?

This is a complex topic because there is no one size fits all answer.  However, there are a few broad arguments we can make which are true in most cases.   Any experiment done on people who cannot give informed consent is wrong.  What this means is that anyone who is not legally able to say, “I understand what you are doing, what the risks are, and I am ok with it” should not be experimented on.  This includes legal minors, infants, people with intellectual disabilities and pre-birth children.  There are, of course, exceptions to this. If it is certain that the person will die but the experimental treatment provides them an opportunity to survive, then trying to use the experimental treatment to save them is morally justified as one example.

In principle, the use of CRISPR should be for the bettering quality of human life, not to fundamentally change the human gene pool.  This is why CRISPR should not be used for anything heritable.  Changing the heredity of individuals, particularly before they are born, is simply unconscionable.  God forms the baby in the womb, not the scientist.

Another ethical question is, why not create “designer babies”? Why not make sure your child has blue eyes, or blond hair, or is tall, or smart or athletic? Of course, to do this countless embryos must be killed but, unless you have a Biblical worldview, why not? And why would you put this weight of expectation on a child? What happens if the doctor, or CRISPR, makes a mistake and the designer child is not born exactly to the parent’s specifications? These are the kinds of ethical questions we need to be asking.

CRISPR is a potentially very useful technology. Genetic diseases could potentially be reversed.  However, it is also potentially very destructive technology.  Millions of babies could be destroyed and countless lives affected negatively through its misuse. Christians need to carefully evaluate the ethical questions CRISPR raises and determine how they will answer them.


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