Gene Editing Coming Your Way

In recent years, talk of gene editing has become extremely popular. Gene editing technologies like CRISPR promise not only to eradicate disease and disability, but also to provide human enhancement and designer babies. But this powerful technology comes with a host of major ethical issues that need to be carefully considered and addressed.

You may wonder what ethics has to do with gene editing – after all, doesn’t eradicating disease and disability sound like a no brainer? It’s true that we can and have used technology to alleviate suffering in the world, and that is a good thing. But sometimes our well-intentioned actions can have devastating unforeseen consequences.

The next time someone says, “gene editing can help us wipe out disease and will improve life for everyone,” here are 3 things to remember:

Number 1: Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

When we hear about the exciting advances in technology and genetics, it’s easy to believe the promise that it will make our lives better or healthier. But, as countless stories in science fiction have taught us, simply pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake can have dangerous consequences. That’s why it’s important to ask not only “can we” do something, but “should we” do something. As technology continues to advance, the question of “should we” will get more and more weighty.

For example, a group of researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London used CRISPR technology to edit 18 human embryos. But when they finished, they found that around half the embryos ended up with what they called “major unintended edits.” These “major unintended edits” are more harmful than they sound. They can actually lead to birth defects or life-threatening medical problems like cancer. And, those issues could permanently enter the gene pool and affect future generations.

Sometimes, our finite minds don’t always foresee the potential dangers or ramifications of these innovations on human life. This is why it’s dangerous to separate science from philosophy and ethics. These decisions shouldn’t just be left up to scientists or experts who may be preoccupied with scientific advancement without a larger, ethical perspective and boundaries.

Number 2: Treating human life as disposable doesn’t make our society more humane.

Humans aren’t simply problems to be fixed or objects to be experimented on. Those 18 “edited” embryos are actual human lives that have been permanently altered in the pursuit of innovation and science. Many embryos will simply be discarded or destroyed because their usefulness has expired. But defining the value of a human life by their utility is not advancing society in a desirable or worthy direction.

The sincere desire to eradicate genetic diseases is understandable, and the longing to heal reflects God’s image in us. Ethically sound and medically safe treatments that don’t dehumanize other human beings should be pursued.

But we must proceed with an ethical framework, and an awareness of the human temptation to “become like God” with our own ideas about what is good and evil. Which leads to our third point.

Number 3: Gene editing can’t deliver on its promise of control.

In the ethics of biotechnology, there’s a fine line between healing and enhancement. Healing is fixing something that’s broken. Enhancement is trying to improve something that isn’t broken. It can be tempting to want to just “upgrade” healthy people or give our children a leg up in the world through various biotechnical enhancements.

But this desire to “enhance” humanity misinterprets what it means to be human and exposes the urge to have complete control over our lives. We like to think that we have everything under control, that we can protect ourselves from any kind of pain, and decide what is moral on our own.

But technology and human “enhancement” can’t deliver on its promise to meet those deep desires for control. As we discussed earlier, this search for control often descends into a chaos of unintended consequences. As long as we keep looking to technology to solve our need for control or security or hope, we’ll find ourselves disappointed. What we’re missing can’t be provided by technology. In reality, our craving for purpose, security, and the freedom to create and invent without hurting others is best met when we love our Creator, and love our neighbor more than we love ourselves.

So the next time you’re talking about technology and someone says “gene editing will help us wipe out disease and help create better lives for all,” remember these 3 things:

Number 1: Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Number 2: Treating human life as disposable doesn’t make our society more humane.

Number 3: Gene editing can’t deliver on its promise of control.

C. Colson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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