The Guardian reported this week that the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has (or “have,” as the English say) approved as “morally permissible” the practice of altering the DNA of human embryos in order to eliminate certain diseases. The council advises, however, that scientific techniques are not yet advanced enough to allow the procedure to be in common use, but it supported gene editing in theory.
To many people, this probably seems innocuous. Who doesn’t want to eliminate cystic fibrosis? Of course there is nothing wrong about curing genetic diseases per se. However, gene editing is rife with potential problems that require us to take every precaution that we do not fall into that old evil, eugenics.
Firstly, gene-editing research uses embryos created by in vitro fertilization. We must always oppose the concocting of children in laboratories because it cheapens natural reproduction and the family, but especially when those children are monkeyed with and then mandatorily “destroyed” after experimentation. The IVF industry demonstrates a horrifying disregard for human life. Bear in mind that the ethical standards of many of the people at the vanguard are not exactly impeccable: At the moment, they brag about eliminating Down syndrome when what they are actually doing is murdering people who have Down syndrome.
The Nuffield Council’s report stipulates that gene editing must not increase “disadvantage, discrimination, or division in society.” If we suppose that gene editing will one day be easy to perform in the womb, it will pass quickly through various economic stages. It might begin as a costly medical procedure available only to the rich. Then a fight might emerge over whether it should be covered by insurance. Single-payer gene editing might eventually be the cause célèbre of social-justice advocates.
Some people cited in the Guardian article express precisely this concern, that tampering with DNA will produce “genetic haves and have-nots.” Indeed, the question of so-called designer babies is especially concerning: Scientists may move on from curing diseases to altering characteristics such as height, athleticism, or intelligence. Before gene editing has become a universal right (see above), and even perhaps afterward, customizing children will have no effect other than increasing disadvantage, discrimination, and division in society.
Unless, of course, we put it under the watchful eye of — horresco referens — the “fertility regulator.” A more frightening term could hardly be devised. Yet this is the shorthand for the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a bureau of the type to which we will be asked to entrust the fate of civilization. One shudders to think what policies it would enact if it had any power.
This may sound like paranoia, but it is not. A major error in contemplating revolutionary procedures such as gene editing is failure to extrapolate long-term effects before charging ahead. Another article in the Guardian on the same topic advises, “Let’s worry about the future in the future.” Who could possibly be that shortsightedly naïve? If we find some possible consequences of a process undesirable (or revolting), we should grapple with them before we start, not wait to be ambushed later.