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Parents May One Day Be Morally Obligated to Edit Their Baby's Genes

As genetic editing becomes a reality, some say it would be wrong not to use it to cure disease

A doctor explains to a young couple that he has screened the pair’s in vitro fertilized embryos and selected those that had no major inheritable diseases. The couple had specified they want a son with hazel eyes, dark hair and fair skin. Then the doctor announces that he has also taken the liberty of eliminating the “burden” of genetic propensities for baldness, nearsightedness, alcoholism, obesity and domestic violence.

The prospective mother replies that they didn’t want those revisions. “I mean diseases, yes, but …” Her husband jumps in to say, “We were just wondering if it’s good to leave a few things to chance.”

But the doctor reminds the would-be parents why they came to him in the first place. They want to give their child “the best possible start.”

That’s a scene from the movie Gattaca, which premiered 20 years ago in October. But thanks to recent advances in gene-editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9, genetic manipulation of human embryos is becoming reality.

Soon, designer babies like those described in the film may even become morally mandatory, some ethicists say.

Gattaca’s narrator tells us that such genetic manipulation of in vitro fertilized embryos has become “the natural way of giving birth” in the near future portrayed in the film. It has also created an underclass of people whose parents didn’t buy those genetic advantages for their children.

Until recently, that sort of fiddling with human DNA was only science fiction and allegory, a warning against a new kind of eugenics that could pit the genetic haves and have-nots against each other. At a symposium sponsored by the Hastings Center on October 26 before the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco, ethicists and journalists explored the flip side of that discussion: whether parents have a moral obligation to make “better” babies through genetic engineering. Technology that can precisely change a baby’s genes is quickly becoming reality. This year, scientists reported using CRISPR/Cas9 in viable human embryos to fix mutations that cause heart and blood disorders. CRISPR/Cas9 acts as a molecular scissors that relatively easily and precisely manipulates DNA. Scientists have honed and developed the tool in the roughly five years it has been around, creating myriad “CRISPR” mice, fish, pigs, cows, plants and other creatures. Its use in human embryos has been hotly debated. Should we or shouldn’t we?   

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