Proposition: We should not exercise the power to shape our genome

William Atkinson

Who chooses who lives or dies? Which children are born into poverty and hunger? Previous generations would have said God. As staunch an agnostic Anglican as I am, I’m rather glad we’ve done away with that notion now. The last few decades have seen incredible advances in tackling the evils of global poverty and malnutrition. Every day, more people live happier, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before.

But there’s much more to be done, and genetic engineering forms part of the answer. The ‘golden rice’ of Professor Ingo Potrykus was in the news this week. It’s rice that’s high in Vitamin A. Deficiency in this is almost unknown in the West. Elsewhere it’s a huge killer. It’s estimated as the cause of 2,000 deaths a day, more than HIV or malaria. A third of global children suffer from it, and it can lead to blindness. But the introduction of this rice has been delayed in many countries because of stifling regulations. This resistance to genetic engineering is a disgraceful tragedy. The millions that died unnecessary deaths attest to that.

So why, if I can so passionately defend genetic engineering, should I argue it’s irresponsible?

Because plants are different from people, as much as Guardians of the Galaxy suggested otherwise. As genetic engineering progresses, it’s moving into troubling areas. ‘Designer babies’ is an infantile term. It makes you think of Sex in the City style choosy mums picking out their best babies. Oooh, I fancy a ginger one I think. Maybe a girl. Let’s not make her too bright though, the last one was a bit too clever, etc. It’s like Aldous Huxley crossed with Sophie Kinsella. But don’t let this silly image hide a deeply problematic debate. What right do we have to choose what our kids are like?

It happens already, for a lucky few. The wealthy can have sperm sifted from donors predisposed to particular traits. But hoping for a particular sex or hair colour is nothing compared to some of the implication of genetic engineering. What happens thirty or so years down the line when a parent can choose not only their child’s IQ or predisposition for putting on weight, but whether they suffer from mental illness or a disability? If parents chose in a certain way, they’d be suggesting those born naturally with those conditions were somehow less worthy of life. That’s horrifying.

It’s an old debate; after all, the term eugenics was invented in 1883. That doesn’t make it any less crucial. I stand foursquare behind Professor Potrykus and those like him whose work can do so much to alleviate human suffering. But as genetic engineering spreads from plants to humans, I can’t help but feel we’ll be resembling Potrykus less and less. Instead, we’re like those nations blocking the introduction of his rice, choosing who gets to live or die.

Opposition: If done carefully, gene editing can solve problems nothing else can

Yaelle Goldschlag

Gene editing brings to mind dystopian scenarios. The technology and potential behind gene editing feel so futuristic that we condemn progress. But we must not dismiss the field because of its potential dangers. We must instead proceed cautiously and carefully.

Gene editing research today deals primarily with improving unfavourable situations, from increasing crop resilience to preventing diseases. Examples of past experiments include treating a man with HIV by transplanting modified, HIV-resistant cells into his bloodstream and increasing algae’s biofuel production.

Various concerns arise from different categories of gene editing. We must conduct effective tests when modifying food crops because the food is often widely distributed. Edited genes that are inserted into live organisms should be tested like any other medical treatment. However, creating regulations that enforce effective testing and thoughtful progress is preferable to outlawing advances. Progress can be undesirable: we should likely not allocate money towards building larger nuclear weapons.

But we should continue with research in areas that may be fruitful. With the climate, the potential for food shortages, and the state of medical advances, gene editing has the potential to be useful.

There are consequences to tampering with the human genome however. Successes in eliminating a disease or creating immunity may come at the expense of other consequences. The longer-term consequences are speculative. Editing the germline may spur evolution that has been remarkably absent from humans for thousands of years. It is hard to know what will happen if we upset that distinction.

Other concerns are dystopian: what would happen if we improve some segment of humanity? Will this new technology lead to elimination of diseases, increases in strength or intellectual ability, or even reductions in ability to enforce a class-based system?

But these are not decisions we must make today. There is no indication that society will advocate for these changes: people are rightfully wary of editing the human genome, and governmental legislation and self-imposed regulations in the research community prohibit this area of advancement. I argue in favour of thoughtful gene editing, but against nonessential changes to the human genome. There are cases where modifying the human genome may be desirable such as when a fetus is known to have a serious disease. As in these other areas, we should continue to have transparent discussions and reevaluate as new scenarios arise.