Will editing your baby’s genes soon become mandatory?

Writer predicts that in the near future the United States will arrest, try, and convict parents who refuse to edit the genes of their child before birth

(photo: Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Designing a baby, or editing the genes of an unborn child, strikes many as risky, unseemly, unnatural, unethical, or likely to lead to a dystopian future of one sort or another. Still, I predict that within my lifetime, the United States will arrest, try, and convict some parents for refusing to edit the genes of their child before he or she is born.

Legislative majorities do believe that parents should be put on trial for withholding mainstream medical treatment when a child suffers greatly or dies as a result [as with Christian Scientists].

Reporter Phillip Ball quoted one expert as follows:

Because of unknown health risks and widespread public distrust of gene editing, bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire says he does not foresee widespread use of Crispr-Cas9 in the next two decades, even for the prevention of genetic disease, let alone for designer babies. However, Green does see gene editing appearing on the menu eventually, and perhaps not just for medical therapies.

“It is unavoidably in our future,” he said, “and I believe it will become one of the central foci of our social debates later in this century and in the century beyond.”

In those future debates, gene editing to prevent disease is likely to be the least controversial use. Some folks will grant that trying to reduce disease is a reasonable course even as they argue against gene editing for cognitive or aesthetic enhancement. Others will remain wary of editing the genes of their child. If early gene editing efforts cause harm past some threshold, the backlash may render my prediction incorrect. Barring that, it seems likely that gene editors will gain the ability to safely prevent some awful diseases, and that the holdouts who fear or morally object to their methods will dwindle more and more with every passing year.

Once they’re no more numerous or influential than, say, today’s Christian Scientists, the relevant politics will be quite changed. Holdouts who fear that gene editing is putting humanity on a slippery slope to disaster or who have religious objections to the technique or who just prefer “the old-fashioned way” in their gut will conceive a child. If he or she is healthy all will be fine. But some holdouts will give birth to a child with a painful or fatal condition that could have been prevented.

People will get angry at those parents and seek to punish them.

Or at least that is the course I foresee (even though there is arguably an ethical distinction between refraining from editing the genes of a future human and denying essential medical treatment to an already living human, who is understood to have individual rights independent from or not entirely subject to the beliefs of their guardians).

Full story at The Atlantic.

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