by Gretchen Bird, Cody Cook and Garrett Edinger

If you had the ability and unlimited resources, would you prevent Down syndrome among the world’s population?  What about if your child had Down syndrome–would you then take the initiative to “turn off” the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome?  Even further, if given the choice, would you select a particular eye color for your child? Hair color? Height? Athletic ability? Natural intelligence? With new technologies, the ability to select for these attributes is a possibility.

Recent advancements in biomedical technologies have brought us new ways of treating disease and improving human lives, some of which are described above. New technologies called CRISPR/Cas9 have made it possible for scientists to edit a human’s genetic information in a precise and targeted way; however, these technologies have also raised many ethical concerns.

Matt Atherton explains CRISPR in the International Business Times, “CRISPR is a gene-editing tool. It allows scientists to not only examine every single strand of DNA in an embryo, but also adapt them. It is an incredibly efficient and precise mechanism for targeting genes. The basis for the practice comes from bacteria.”

With this new biomedical technology, it is possible for us to change the genetic information of a human. The question of whether or not we can edit DNA has been answered. Now we need to ask ourselves, examining our hearts and our motives, to see if we should. Proponents of human gene editing say that it can be used to remove heritable diseases from human genes and prevent congenital disease.  Nevertheless, many people feel that editing heritable genes, or the human germline, would be unethical and potentially dangerous.

X-linked hypophosphatemia, or XLH, which results in a form of dwarfism, is one example of a genetic disease that scientists believe could be treated using CRISPR technologies. This would be accomplished by editing the DNA in the sperm and egg cells of parents who carry the genes for the disease. By removing the DNA that codes for the disease using CRISPR, sperm and egg cells from the parents could be produced that no longer code for the disease; these cells could then be used to accomplish in vitro fertilization.  The parents would then have an XLH-free baby. Huntington’s disease, azoospermia, and certain inherited forms of cancer are just a few of the many genetic diseases that have been mentioned as potential applications of CRISPR. Theoretically, CRISPR could be used to treat any number of genetic and inherited diseases.

While many people feel that it would be irresponsible for us neglect a technology that has such great power to cure life-altering disease, others feel that it would be dangerous, and might result in a world where gene editing is used for more than treating disease. While many scientists agree that CRISPR could be used to treat disease, it also raises concerns of its less admirable uses. CRISPR could also be used to change aesthetic appearance. Everything from height, to hair color, to eye color, to body size, could be selected for using CRISPR. Moreover, these changes would most likely only be available to the very rich. CRISPR also presents the possibility that genes could be changed in unintended ways that doctors and scientists did not intend, especially if the changes are heritable.

Public opinion about the uses of new genetic modification tools is still much divided. According to an article by Antonio Regalado in MIT Technology Review, 50% of U.S. adults believe that changing a baby’s genetic characteristics to reduce the risk of serious disease is taking medical advances too far. Eighty-three percent say it is taking medical advancements too far if it is used to increase a baby’s intelligence.

Although this technology is still in its infancy, it already presents us with many questions going forward. While it can improve lives, CRISPR could also change the world in ways that would alter society at the most fundamental level. It could create a world in which everyone is genetically modified for inconsequential aesthetic purposes, rather than for the sake of their health.  Its effects would be felt far beyond any lab. Real people and real families are at the heart of what CRISPR can do, and we need to remember that it is their lives that would be affected most by this technology. We cannot forget that human dignity and value are defined independently of one’s intellect, athleticism, or any other surface quality. As one mother of a child with Down syndrome stated to one of the scientists who helped develop CRISPR, “There’s something about him [her child with Down syndrome] that’s so special. He’s so loving in a way that’s unique to him. I wouldn’t change it.”