What if I told you that we could potentially eradicate up to 90 percent of hereditary diseases?
What if I told you cancers that are now incurable could be cured within a decade or two?
What if I told you that you could, in theory, edit the genome of your children, giving them advantages in intellect, physique, and demeanor?
Would you approve of it?
CRISPR, the technology that may be able to do all those things, already exists. CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats,” is a revolutionary gene-editing tool that allows scientists to insert, cut, and move sequences of DNA.
But that biotechnology raises ethical, moral, and religious questions. In other words, would altering our genes is full of risks and unknowns. Under what circumstances is it the right thing to do?
“The question becomes what is the care that we are going to take so that we don’t do more harm than good,” said Connie McCalla, a theology teacher at West Catholic High School.
The technology has made headlines recently because a Japanese scientist has bypassed caution and created the first gene-edited humans.
He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen, used CRISPR to disable a gene in the embryo of two twins, Nana and Lulu, in hopes of helping them resist infection with HIV, the virus their father is infected with.
The experiment was attacked as reckless by scientists around the world. Not only could the babies not give consent to participate, but CRISPR could accidentally introduce unwanted mutations into their DNA.
“To mutate a gene in order to prevent a disease, a disease that is already preventable, without taking into consideration that the technology is still not safe and that it could have very detrimental effects in the newborn. …That’s a very dangerous part,” said Jorge Henao-Mejia, an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania of Perelman School of Medicine.
Most scientists have been conducting research at a careful, incremental pace, trying to understand the vast opportunities CRISPR presents as well as the risks involved in the unpredictability of editing DNA.
The ethical debate around CRISPR also stems from religious and moral beliefs about the value of human embryos. Jiankui’s experiment was the first known instance in history in which edited human embryos were implanted and allowed to row until birth.
Some critics believe using human embryos to hone the technology is immoral. “I don’t think you should practice on embryos. There’s two different lights-you could see it as a person as soon as conception happens or just a clump of cells,” said Morgan Sperratore, a chemistry teacher at West Catholic.
McCalla, in contrast, believes that at some point, humans need to be introduced to the CRISPR technology. “There are lots of things we originally saw as morally compromising. The purpose was not to create Frankenstein, it was in fact to save life. We have to have a purpose and that purpose has to be something that furthers … the quality of the life of the human being,” McCalla said.
Michael Field, campus minister at West Catholic, feels that using CRISPR on human embryos is immoral.”
He asked aloud, “Because we have the ability to do it…does that mean it’s right?”
The prospect of genetically modified humans is already causing some countries to pass laws banning or imposing restrictions on the practice of gene-editing human embryos.
Henao-Mejia said he’s worried that the technology could one day be extended to modify embryos to enhance traits such as eye color or athleticism—features that are not important to health. “That means this can lead to so many issues in our society that I don’t even want to think about,” he said, adding that it “could lead to inequality and should be carefully regulated.”