(Gene)-ethics: Should we do everything that is scientifically possible?

12 November 2021

The 1997 film Gattaca depicted a society in which most children were conceived in vitro, to improve the physical and mental traits using gene selection technology. While these people got the top jobs, those who were conceived naturally were condemned to do all the dirty work. 

Twenty-four years later, the dystopia that the sci-fi classic invoked resonates more than ever. “Even though genetic improvement has been on the cards for decades, we’ve never been this close to having technology that would really make it possible,” said Jon Rueda, who is currently studying for a PhD in Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Granada with a fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation. However, he warned, “just because something is possible doesn’t mean we should do it.” 

Jon Rueda is studying for a PhD in Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Granada with a fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation.

Jon is researching the ethical debates that stem from the use of breakthrough genetic technologies such as embryo screening and CRISPR/Cas9. “Embryo screening involves detecting the presence of genetic alterations connected with diseases in embryos created through IVF, so that we can choose the ones that don't have the alteration,” said Jon. The ground-breaking CRISPR/Cas9 technology — for which the creators, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry — takes things one step further. “It’s a immunological mechanism in certain bacteria that scientists are making use of because it allows them to edit genes as they wish,” he said. From correcting mutations that cause genetic diseases to making plants that are resistant to pests or getting rid of pathogens. 

Both technologies were designed with the idea of improving health. However, this technology is so powerful that it has the scope to go much further than what we had once imagined, as is often the case with technology. Firstly, “when faced with the possibility of controlling which genes our offspring will inherit, perhaps many more people will opt for reprogenetic technologies,” said Jon. Secondly, access to this technology could worsen social and economic inequalities, since “it doesn’t look like they will be available to everyone at first because of the price. How we distribute these resources fairly could be one of the great ethical and political challenges of the current age,” he said. Lastly, there is the matter of (dis)continuity of the human species, since “genetic improvement technology and the accumulation of modifications could, in the long-term, have an influence on our evolution,” said Jon. “This technology could change human reproduction, what we deem to be fair and unfair, or even make us consider how desirable it is to continue the human species or to try and create an advanced species that could be a substantially better way of existing,” he said. 

The balance between risks and benefits is a question that is inherent to scientific and technological advances. “Since it is in the experimental stages, this technology is neither safe nor effective. However, when CRISPR/Cas9 can safely deactivate genes that predispose people to severe monogenic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and Huntington's disease, the scales will tip towards the benefits. In this way, its application would not only be morally desirable, but should also be legally permissible.” The last point is important since, as Jon says, “it is difficult for legal frameworks to keep up with the dizzying pace of these advances,” which in future could be put to other uses, and some of them might not be so ethical.

According to Jon, the history of technology is full of advances that were controversial at the beginning but are now normalised and widely used. “Cars, mobile phones and the internet had their detractors. Similarly, many reproductive practices, which are now commonplace, such as amniocentesis, artificial insemination from donated gametes, IVF or preimplantation genetic diagnosis raised some ethical qualms. As many of these qualms were not convincing enough to hold back the development, this will probably be the case for CRISPR/Cas9 and other genetic technology to come,” he said in conclusion. 

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