There are some challenging ethical questions that scientists, philosophers, and even politicians face throughout their careers. One of the most difficult subjects that will require decisions in the near future is the scientific processes that allow for human genetic engineering. Should we develop technologies that allow us to alter the genetic codes of future generations?
The world’s leading gene-editing experts meet annually (and sometimes more often) with attorneys, ethicists, and even members of the general public to get their take on this subject. It isn’t a technology that is new by any means. The first tools that permitted the editing of genes were invented in 1975. It is the recent developments in this field that make it seem that ideas from the science-fiction genre have a chance to become reality.
In April 2015, Chinese scientists announced experiments that would remove the genes of inheritable disease from human embryos. This work damaged the cells so that they could not develop into babies, but the results spoke for themselves. The elimination of the unwanted genes from the germline could 100% eliminate diseases by a single mutation like Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s disease, or cystic fibrosis.
That’s why we must start examining the advantages and disadvantages of human genetic engineering today. It will not be long before this technology is available for use.
List of the Advantages of Human Genetic Engineering
1. Genetic engineering could further human lifespans.
It usually takes multiple generations to generate evolutionary movement within a species. As the environment changes, so must the physical traits of humans. Genetic engineering gives us a faster path forward that we can use to ensure the survival of our species. Altering our cells through this practice to make them more resilient to the natural aging process could extend our lifespan to levels previously thought to be impossible. We can feel better as we age too if we take care of our bodies, especially if we can program resilience against particularly dangerous diseases.
2. We could rid of hereditary disease.
There are numerous diseases that require a genetic predisposition for their existence. That means a person’s risk for developing cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other problems can be reduced because of this technology. When they exist on a single mutation, then we could eliminate them immediately before it impacts the development of a baby’s system. Even smaller issues, such as eczema, could be resolved because of this proactive intervention. It could lead to treatments for people who are born without them as well.
“I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world,” David Pearce commented. “Our descendants will be animated by gradients of genetically pre-programmed wellbeing that are orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences.”
3. Every child would have a chance to be born healthy.
There are several diseases that we can already detect during the fetal development process. Human genetic engineering can stop illness or disease before the child is born. Parents face a difficult choice when their doctor tells them that their child could face chronic pain, a lifetime of disabilities, or other health issues. Knowing that your baby would suffer for a few months only to die means you’re taking a gamble on their quality of life. The technology behind the engineering process could eliminate this issue, virtually guaranteeing that every child could be born healthy. Anything disease that comes from a potential carrier would slowly work its way out of the human experience.
4. Food requirements could be changed through human genetic engineering.
Humans need specific foods to ensure their survival. You must receive a particular nutrient profile to ensure that you maintain healthy energy levels. This technology could help us to solve the looming food insecurity problems as our population grows because we could engineer profiles that have fewer food requirements. We could reduce our destruction of natural habitats, stop overgrazing, and even make the items we eat healthier because of how the food interacts at a cellular level.
5. This technology could eliminate fertility issues for couples.
Human genetic engineering could also make it possible for couples to have children when they would struggle at it naturally. We wouldn’t need to worry about infertility because any sperm and egg combination could be edited to match the profile of the parents. This technology would make it possible to maintain population levels without going overboard on family size. It is a necessary advantage to consider since the average fertility rate in the top 30 developed countries has declined by 50% in just 60 years. If a country does not have a birth rate of 2.1 per family, then population shrinkage occurs. At 1.7, the United Kingdom is already there.
6. Human genetic editing could lead to medical advancements.
The processes behind human genetic editing would undoubtedly encourage advances in medical research over time. We would get the opportunity to share genetic material that could prevent disease, cure illnesses, or eliminate the risk of certain cancers. There would be new avenues of research to consider because of our knowledge of human systems. This advantage could be the next wave of medicine that equals or exceeds the impact of antibiotics.
Since 2015, there have been HIV therapy trials that became possible because of gene editing. When researchers destroyed the gene for CCR5, then they could raise a person’s resistance to the virus. The goal is to create a functional cure that could apply to sickle cell disease and other benefits.
7. There could be mental health benefits to consider with human genetic engineering.
Babies are not forced to go through a genetic lottery when this technology becomes available. It would become possible to work on mental health issues just as much as physical concerns with human genetic engineering. That means we could reduce the prevalence of schizophrenia, depression, and similar challenging diagnoses thanks to the pre-birth preparations that would occur.
These changes could even become heritable under the right gene editing conditions. It could weed out mutations in the mitochondria, create replacement therapies, and open an entirely new world of scientific discovery over time.
List of the Disadvantages of Human Genetic Engineering
1. It would change how we would need to approach population control.
Disease is one of the most effective methods of population control for the human race. If we use genetic engineering to extend the lifespan of everyone, then this influence would change our global culture. A longer life isn’t always practical. We might open the doors to having more children, require higher levels of medical care for a longer time, and increase the economic costs of each family unit. There could be problems with job availability, economic disparity, and a lack of agricultural space to support everyone.
2. There will always be ethical questions to consider.
Anyone who believes in the concept of God or a supernatural creator will have some level of ethical concern about the idea of humans genetically editing future generations. There could be some who would see the work as being blasphemous, which could eventually lead to higher levels of violence against specific groups. We already see this disadvantage to some extent in the abortion debate because of the implication that the choices being made are tantamount to playing God. Allowing for genetic editing would take this conversation to a whole new level.
“The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking,” commented Yuval Noah Harari. “Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, perhaps the real questions facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do want to want?’”
3. It would create different societal classes around the world.
New technologies are always expensive. Only the households that could afford to take advantage of this service would perform gene editing on their children. That means the initial population surge from human gene editing would involve the wealthiest people. It would create a severe divide between those with money and the people without it. We could find ourselves living in a world where different classifications of genetic purity could lead to individualized approaches to health care, employment, and education. It would become the next step for those with wealth to safeguard their societal status.
“I’ve always been suspicious of the assumption that great intelligence would be an unqualified benefit – that the madness that so often accompanies it can be cavalierly dismissed,” said Andrew M. Ryan. “So, I asked the question: suppose there was an entire subpopulation of extreme geniuses, well beyond anything that would occur naturally. What would that really look like?”
4. It would reduce the amount of genetic diversity in the world.
If we start eliminating the potential diseases and illnesses that are currently part of our genome, then the amount of genetic diversity in the human race would slowly fade. Human genetic editing could help to delay the fade that would undoubtedly result over time, but it would not erase it entirely. After a handful of generations with this technology, the human genome might degrade to the point where it would be almost impossible to create offspring unless a parent without this evolutionary trait decides to have children with a partner from the same perspective.
5. It does not eliminate the risk of a mistake happening.
There will always be the disadvantage of a mistake occurring when dealing with human genetic engineering. We are not a perfect people, no matter how smart the scientist happens to be. We have a general understanding of what our core makeup happens to be, but there is also the possibility that we don’t have all of the pieces to the puzzle as of yet. Small changes to a growing baby could have a disruptive effect that we might be unable to predict with our current resources. Changing the genetic profile to eliminate disease might create miscarriages, birth defects, or a greater risk of stillbirth. That’s why a careful approach to this subject is absolutely necessary.
6. This technology would eventually allow for trait selection.
Most people concur that the primary benefit of human genetic engineering is to create a process where every baby is healthy at birth. Once we reach this goal, then what is the next step? It would likely be the selection of specific traits that future generations would want their children to have. You might get the opportunity to choose hair color, eye color, or even gender. You would know what the child would look like at every age before they were born. Then we would need to create systems that would help to keep those with genetic advantages equal to the children who were born “naturally” because they didn’t have enough wealth.
7. There could be unintended side effects that we do not know about today.
One of the reasons why there is a ban on human cloning activities is because animals that come from this technological effort suffer from a variety of severe health problems. The birth rate when genetic modification is involved can be less than 1 in 100 embryos for some species. There are concerns for the health of the mother when there are changes to the genetic profile as well, including the option that the woman’s immune system might attack the growing fetus. It could even change the manner of gene expression in the body so that more harm than good occurs through this process.
8. This process could become the foundation of new weapons technologies.
One of the frightening concerns about human genetic engineering is that military forces, terrorists, and others could develop biological weapons from it. You could produce weapons that seek out specific genetic profiles while leaving the rest of the general population untouched. This disadvantage could result in a surge of unhealthy nationalism, healthcare spending, and global death as each nation works to protect its own best interests. There is even the possibility that the organisms produced because of human genetic editing could reproduce much faster than normal, allowing for a new arms race to occur.
9. It could increase the risk of allergies.
We already know that food allergens can transfer from one crop to another because of genetic engineering efforts. That means women who are pregnant and eating GMO foods could endanger their offspring by altering gene expression. One of the greatest concerns about human genetic editing is that many scientists fear that this process is a one-and-done effort. That means you would be unable to change the alterations you make after completing the work. We have a symbiotic relationship with the world around us, a structure that Neil Tyson deGrasse describes as everything being “made from stardust.”
Making immediate evolutionary changes could have a devastating effect on ourselves and the entire planet because the allergic reactions may develop spontaneously.
The advantages and disadvantages of human genetic engineering allow us to explore the possibility of improving our species without waiting for evolution to do it for us. That means the potential results are extremely compelling. We could provide future generations with several benefits that are not possible today with this technology.
It is also essential to remember that there is no system of genetic modification that will provide consistent results every time. The potential for an error occurring is massive. If scientists can ever crack the code so that it becomes an efficient process, then we’ll still need to deal with opportunity issues that would make this option more available to the wealthy than anyone else.
The advantages are convincing and hopeful. The disadvantages can be downright terrifying. That is why if we ever get to the point where genetic alterations to humans is possible, we must proceed with caution to limit the potential issues that may develop with this technology.
Natalie Regoli is a seasoned writer, who is also our editor-in-chief. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our editor-in-chief a message here.