Genetic Engineering in Humans

The first experiment in changing the genetic instructions in a human embryo is now up for review at the National Institutes of Health. Twenty years from now, today’s children will be able to go into a medical clinic to be screened for their entire genetic makeup; so prospective parents will know what their baby will look like genetically if the egg and sperm come together.

This creates a very troubling situation for parents in the next generation. If you knew, for example, that you were going to pass on the genetic predisposition for sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis or childhood leukemia, wouldn’t you want to eliminate that gene by changing the instructions in the sperm and the egg?

The question is, where do you draw the line? There’s really no slippery slope here; there’s no slope at all, because all parents want the healthiest child they can have. What if you knew your child would have a genetic predisposition for dyslexia or bipolar manic depression? Or that your boy would grow to be 4 feet 11 inches tall? The problem here is that once we begin arranging the genetic instructions in our babies even before conception, the parents become the architects and their children become the ultimate shopping experience in a postmodern world.

But the real problem here is for the child who isn’t engineered. Let’s say a child is not engineered for financial or moral reasons, and the child is born with a “disability.” I put that in quotes because so much of what we think are disabilities are, in reality, the biases of society. But let's say the child has a handicap. Are the rest of us likely to look at that child and be more tolerant and empathetic? Or will we see that child as a mistake, an error in the code, a defect that should have been eliminated? We might think of that child’s parents as being socially and maybe even legally responsible for not doing the right thing.

So the real casualty here is that we may lose empathy, which is that thin emotional strand that allows us to identify with each other. If we lose empathy, we lose our humanity. Whatever short-term gains we may have by programming our children will be canceled out by the loss of empathy in our social discourse.

But let me give you another approach here. There are so many debilitating diseases, and we, of course, don’t want our children to suffer from them. What we’re beginning to learn at the frontiers of genetic development is that whether a gene is turned on or off may be decided between conception and birth by the maternal environment in which that gene is coded. So we may be able to develop a much more sophisticated approach to prevention in the womb, between conception and birth, by making the maternal environment more conducive so that the genome does not mutate. In that way we wouldn’t have to reengineer, or play God, but rather be a steward and a caretaker. It’s a much more sophisticated, subtle approach to prevention. It allows us as stewards to use the science, but not in a way that requires us to create a eugenics world.