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PGD carries its own ethical concerns: It prompts difficult decisions about what kind of children will be welcomed into the world and how those choices might stigmatize individuals already living with inherited conditions.But gene-editing human embryos raises such concerns to an even greater degree, by allowing parents to alter genes or even introduce new traits, and carries additional societal risks of increased inequality.
When we talk about gene editing technology, we often talk about—but almost never deeply consider—the concept of designer babies.
Consider this article in The New York Times, titled “Gene Editing for ‘Designer Babies’?
A more serious dialogue about designer babies could begin to change the conversation.
It also could help us unpack why “designer babies” come up in the media at all.
A very different application of CRISPR is required to make a designer baby: a scientist has to alter the genes in eggs, sperm, or early embryos, making changes that shape the human germline—the DNA passed down from one generation to the next.
Widespread media coverage has made this kind of gene editing experiment using human embryos seem ubiquitous.Using CRISPR, scientists can make pinpoint changes in the genes of many kinds of cells, from bacteria to plants to animals to humans.There is both great hope and great hype surrounding CRISPR, because it might prove useful for medical purposes.Any child born from an engineered embryo is, in a sense, a designer baby. Beliefs can change over time in ways that underscore how problematic it would be to alter future generations.Only considering the products of the most frivolous choices to be “designer babies” makes it seem as if there is a clear and easily enforceable line between acceptable and unacceptable uses of germline editing. Up until 1973, to cite one example, homosexuality could be diagnosed as a psychological illness; we think about it much differently now.This brings up a third issue worth discussing: What makes a baby a designer baby in the first place?Some try to make a tricky distinction between “bad” reasons for germline gene editing, like enhancing appearance or talent, and “good” reasons for germline gene editing, like preventing serious diseases.But we really don’t have a consensus about which inherited traits are desirable or undesirable. Decisions to edit out diseases impose present-day values on future generations.Autism has been proposed as one of the serious diseases that might be prevented through embryo editing—but the definition of autism has changed radically over the past few decades.Actually talking about such imaginary babies—however far-fetched their existence seems—could help us start that discussion.Only by acknowledging that a future defined by designer DNA is possible can we decide whether we are comfortable with the risks, or even aspire to that future.