Earlier this week, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he and his team had successfully edited the genes of unborn children from seven families in China. One of the couples recently welcomed twin girls with artificially modified genes.
Genetically modified DNA has been around for a while, but this is the first time it has been used on the embryo of an unborn child. The scientists modified a gene known as CCR5, which is supposed to make the twin girls (and the other children treated) more resistant to HIV.
The use of gene editing on humans is banned in the United States due to concerns about how modified genes would impact future generations.
Scientists have always been concerned with modifying our genetic makeup. But how long will this concern last? Is it only a matter of time until genetic editing becomes an acceptable practice – and the first "designer babies" are born?
A child with the desired IQ, eye color, athletic ability and other qualities determined before birth by his or her parents could be just around the corner.
Jiankui says this is absurd. But his decision to edit the genetics of these children in China has opened a door we may never be able to close again.
And here's why that should bother us:
- This is a highly experimental procedure with an unknown outcome. While Jiankui claims to have successfully modified the CCR5 gene, it is unknown how this will affect the girls in his experiment and other children in the future. The modification of the gene may or may not help protect the girls from HIV, and it could also make them more vulnerable to diseases like the West Nile virus and the flu. It's also unknown how removing this gene could affect them in the future.
- This technology exists outside the bounds of any medical or ethical standards. There is also a question about how these couples were chosen. In a video posted by Jiankui, he shares that the father of the twin girls is stigmatized as a person with HIV and could lose his employment over the condition. In fact, all the men in the couples chosen for this project have HIV. This means that all the couples chosen were likely of lower economic and social stature, making them particularly vulnerable to a doctor who told them that he could protect their children from HIV. Whatever their socioeconomic standing, children are not commodities to be used for scientific experiments or gain.
- Gene editing sets a dangerous precedent, especially for those with intellectual and physical disabilities. Abortion rates for people with conditions like Down syndrome are already extremely high. It is also possible that genetic manipulation may result in unforeseen problems and other issues as these children grow up and reproduce.
Sadly, the lives of the two girls born with this genetic modification have been forever changed. It was a reckless act that used humans as guinea pigs and set the stage for a world where children aren't born, they're manufactured.
There's an old saying, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." And maybe Chinese scientist He Jiankui should have taken that old adage to heart.