Designer Babies Are at the Doorstep

A child with cystic fibrosis (CF) can look forward to a lifetime of nearly suffocating in his own mucus, probably infertility in the case of a male child, and finally death in middle age.

The disease is genetic. If you were pregnant and knew your baby was destined to struggle with CF, what would you do?

  • Have an abortion?
  • Carry the baby to term as-is?
  • Repair the defective genes so he would not develop CF?

For me, the choice would be easy. I would repair the genes.

designer-babiesThis week, news broke that scientists have managed to edit the DNA of human embryos using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, in a way that could absolutely cure CF and other diseases. (Here’s a 90-second explanation of CRISPR, and here’s one in more depth that runs 7:20.)

Not only could the technique prevent disease in an affected embryo, but the gene would forever be eliminated from the line of descent (the embryo’s children). Pretty great, right?

Yes, but the scary part is that this technique could conceivably be employed to edit any gene. You want taller children? Smarter children? Stronger children? You will be able to have them — for a price.

Wealth inequality is a problem in our society already. What will happen when the wealthy can leverage their wealth to actually become the “superior beings” that their wealth now only makes them appear to be?

There have been calls to ban the editing of human embryos, but such genies never stay in their bottles for long. Even if designer babies are only available on the black market, they will be available.

So the only question for us is what we’re going to do about it. Should we acknowledge and work with the coming reality and make this technology as safely and widely available as possible? Should we have the equivalent of “non-GMO certification” for babies, and only let non-modified babies have certain opportunities when they grow up? Should we just let the market work it all out?

My instinct is to welcome and manage the new reality, but maybe that’s naïve.

What do you think?

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