A hand working with a scientific tool. (Photo by National Cancer Institute from Unsplash)
In a press release on November 25, 2018, Jiankui He, an associate professor from the Southern University of Science and Technology, declared the birth of two infants in China with edited C-C chemokine receptor type 5 (CCR5) genes. He asserted that this genetic alteration would confer immunity to HIV infection upon these babies. Lulu and Nana, the twins, entered the world with modified versions of the uncommon CCR5 gene.
On November 28, at the second World Summit of Human Gene Editing, He showcased the experimental data from this project. However, doubts persist regarding the authenticity of these claims and the release of conclusive evidence. It casts a shadow on both the scientific and ethical integrity of the experimental design and data presented during the summit.
Recently, gene editing has emerged as a powerful and controversial tool, raising profound ethical questions about the manipulation of the very building blocks of life. With the advent of technologies like CRISPR-Cas9, we find ourselves at a crossroads in human history where the line between scientific progress and ethical boundaries blurs.
The twins are currently four years old. Jiankui He said, “They have a normal, peaceful, and undisturbed life. This is their wish and we should respect them.” Admitting his mistakes, he also said that he performed the process rashly and felt very uneasy
The central question is this: Are we playing with nature’s blueprint when we delve into the realm of gene editing?
The power of gene editing
It’s crucial to grasp the capabilities of gene editing, also referred to as genome editing. This process involves modifying DNA, which includes adding, removing, or replacing genetic material within a gene.
CRISPR-Cas9, the most famous of these technologies, allows scientists to target and modify specific genes in organisms, including humans. This precision enables us to correct genetic mutations that lead to diseases, create genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and potentially design “custom” babies.
DNA serves as the repository for all genetic information within the body. You’ve probably encountered depictions or models of the DNA double helix, resembling a twisted ladder. The rungs of this twisted ladder consist of DNA base pairs, each comprising a combination of two chemical bases: adenine and thymine or cytosine and guanine.
Moreover, the DNA base pairs’ sequences are instructions for making proteins, which control the body’s development and functions. Gene editing is like using molecular scissors to change these sequences precisely, but it’s a more complex process than just scissors because there are various methods for gene manipulation.
Promoting human health
Gene editing has great potential in medicine. Scientists are looking into using CRISPR to fix or replace the flawed genes causing genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. This notion could change the lives of many, giving them a shot at a healthier life without these diseases.
On the other hand, gene editing has the potential to take us beyond curing diseases. It could enable the enhancement of human traits, such as intelligence, strength, or even physical appearance. This notion of “designer babies” raises ethical concerns about creating a genetic elite and exacerbating existing inequalities.
Agriculture and environment
Gene editing also has the power to revolutionize agriculture and help address food security and environmental concerns. Scientists can engineer crops to resist pests, grow in harsh conditions, or produce higher yields. However, this could have unintended consequences, such as the loss of biodiversity or unforeseen ecological impacts.
Now that we’ve seen the potential benefits and pitfalls of gene editing, let’s delve into the ethical considerations:
1. Consent and autonomy
The first and foremost ethical principle is informed consent and individual autonomy. The ethical dilemma in human gene editing revolves around the alteration of the genes of an unborn child or someone unable to provide consent. This matter becomes increasingly intricate when considering the possibility of societal influence and coercion. Parents might feel compelled to “design” their children to meet specific societal standards.
2. Equality and access
Gene editing could exacerbate existing inequalities. If it becomes a privilege of the wealthy, it could lead to a genetically enhanced elite, creating a society where those who can afford genetic enhancements have a distinct advantage over others. This issue raises concerns about social justice and equal access to healthcare.
3. Unintended consequences
Gene editing, even when conducted with the best intentions, carries risks of unforeseen consequences. Altering a single gene could have cascading effects on the entire organism or ecosystem. We might not fully understand the long-term implications of our genetic tinkering.
4. Slippery slope
The “slippery slope” argument suggests that once we start down the path of gene editing, there’s no clear line to stop. While gene editing may begin with noble intentions, it could lead to more controversial and ethically problematic modifications as the technology advances.
5. Cultural and religious beliefs
Gene editing also clashes with cultural and religious beliefs. Some view it as “playing God” or tampering with the natural order of life. This opposition stems from deeply held convictions and can create ethical dilemmas in societies with diverse worldviews.
6. Environmental impact
Gene editing in agriculture can have unintended consequences for the environment. For example, genetically modified crops could spread their altered genes to wild plant populations, leading to changes in ecosystems that are difficult to predict.
Made in the likeness of God
A man and a woman standing beside each other. (Photo by Vjapratama from Pexels)
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1:27
Gene editing, a powerful scientific innovation, holds both immense potential and significant dangers. Genesis 1:27, a pivotal verse in the Judeo-Christian creation narrative, emphasizes that humans are created in the image of God, endowing them with intrinsic worth.
Furthermore, gene editing poses an ethical dilemma, challenging the belief in the sanctity of human life and the divine creation of humanity. The technology’s misuse for purposes like designer babies or genetic hierarchies threatens to undermine the inherent dignity of individuals.
The act of modifying the genetic code confronts theological principles, as it may be viewed as humans taking on the role of the divine creator. It raises concerns about human arrogance and interfering with the divine plan.
Existential worries also arise as gene editing could compromise individual uniqueness and exacerbate social and economic inequalities. The technology may risk homogenizing humanity and creating a sense of inadequacy in those who cannot access these treatments.
Gene editing’s relevance to Genesis 1:27 lies in the ethical, theological, and existential challenges it presents. It demands careful consideration of our values, moral principles, and religious beliefs to ensure responsible use that respects the sanctity of life and the image of God in each person.
Striking a balance between scientific advancement and moral and spiritual values is essential. We have to navigate this complex terrain and ensure that gene editing serves humanity’s greater good without compromising our foundational beliefs.
Like many aspects of life, we often have a tendency to cross boundaries and push the limits. God has created us in His image and fashioned the Earth as a fitting home for our existence. Yet, we frequently find ourselves living in a state of discontent, straying from God’s sacred design. Let us always bear in mind not to interfere with the divine essence and intentions of God.
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