Eugenics lurk in the shadow of CRISPR

by jeeg 22. May 2015 23:28


IN CALLING THEIR Perspective “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification” (3 April, p. 36; published online 19 March), D. Baltimore et al. show at once the size of the problem and the modesty of their response to it.  CRISPR-Cas9, invented by the ninth author, Jennifer Doudna, allows the alteration of specific DNA in the mammalian genome. The authors say that “CRISPR-Cas9 technology, as well as other genome engineering methods, can be used to change the DNA in the nuclei of reproductive cells that transmit information from one generation to the next (an organism’s ‘germ line’).” This is a big deal. It means that we can imagine a day when human chromosomes may be modified in the sperm and egg to assure that one or another aspect of a child’s inheritance is designed to order.

This is a huge departure from current understanding, but the authors are remarkably circumspect. They call for the convening of a “globally representative group of developers and users of genome engineering technology and experts in genetics, law, and bioethics, as well as members of the scientific community, the public, and relevant government agencies and interest groups, to further consider these important issues, and where appropriate, recommend policies.”

That simply will not do.  This opening to germline modification is, simply put, the opening of a return to the agenda of eugenics: the positive selection of “good” versions of the human genome and the weeding out of “bad” versions, not just for the health of an individual, but for the future of the species. I do not think their call is sufficient. Even in its inadequacy, I doubt it will be heeded by the six private corporations that are listed in the paper as supporting their research, nor by the universities listed as holding their patents on continuing CRISPR-Cas9 research.

Rational eugenics is still eugenics. The best in the world will not remove the pain from those born into a world of germ-line modification but who had not been given a costly investment in their gametes. They will emerge with the complexity of a genome different from what this technology will be able to define as “normal.”

I do not think anything short of a complete and total ban on human germline modification will do, to prevent this powerful force for rational medicine—one patient at a time—from becoming the beginning of the end of the simplest notion of each of us being “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” 

Robert Pollack, Science Magazine



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