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Genetics in Eugenics

By Danielle Chan

What if there was a way for us to choose the traits that we (or future generations) can possess? Rather than just wishing for musical talent, what if scientists had found a way for us to directly alter our genes that are responsible our ability to memorize concert pieces, to play instruments dexterously and perfectly, and to be able to create musical compositions effortlessly? But most importantly, what if this was all possible now?

At our modern day and age, the field of genetics is advancing rapidly at a pace that was unimaginable decades ago. From Gregor Mendel's work on pea plants, to Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, to the Human Genome Project, there is no telling what the next incredible breakthrough will be when scientists are already pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do.

For instance, for the first time ever, US scientists have edited the DNA of a human embryo. A group of scientists in California, Oregon, and Asia used CRISPR, a gene editing technique, to repair the genes that caused a genetic heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It’s a rare condition where the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick, making it hard for the heart to pump blood, causing shortness of breath, chest pain, or abnormal heart rhythms. There is treatment for this condition, but there is no cure. However, by using CRISPR to cut the affected paternal genes causing the heart condition in the right spot and using the maternal genes repair the DNA with its own disease-free genetic code, scientists were able to directly alter the embryo’s DNA for the better, drastically improving the quality of a human life.

With this technology and technique available for use, there’s no doubt that a future of direct gene editing in the embryo and designer babies sits on the horizon. And with that, there are huge implications and ramifications as to what that future will bring, regarding ethics and morality.

First and foremost, the main use of this type of technology should be for the betterment of humanity, such as using CRISPR to prevent heriable diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease. There doesn’t seem to be any issue or ethical problems with wanting to eliminate all types of human disorders and conditions but it’s hard to draw a line when it is acceptable to directly alter one’s DNA and when it is not acceptable. By directly “fixing” one aspect of a human embryo’s DNA to make them healthier, should scientists and parents be allowed to choose other aspects of the embryo’s DNA to “fix” in order to create a more genetically superior human being? Rather than just having a healthy child, what if you could make them more athletic? What if you could ensure that they would be more intelligent than their friends and peers? And if you could alter that child’s appearance to make them more beautiful and attractive than they would normally, should you still do it?

Altering and changing one’s DNA is huge moral grey area that is incredibly tricky to navigate in the field of genetics and eugenics. Eugenics, coined by Francis Galton in 1883, is an ideology that the human population can be improved by allowing certain individuals with desirable traits to reproduce so they can pass those traits to the next generation, while other undesirable traits should not be passed on. Genetically modifying babies and individuals only perpetuates this ideology, since undesirable traits should be cut away and eliminated as quickly as possible. However, some people use religion to fight against this, claiming that directly altering a human embryo’s DNA is too much like playing God, that humans have no right to wield so much power over another human’s life. Some would even go so far to say that a human has a right to whatever genetic disease that they inherited, that God gave them this genetic disease for a reason. Other people choose to ignore these arguments, asserting that genetic modification is a sign of human advancement cannot be stopped.

And it is easy to agree with them, because no one wants a world where people have to suffer throughout their entire life from a genetic disease that could have been easily fixed with genetic modification. But still, there will always be people looking to abuse this type of power and technology in order to further their own agendas. For instance, the affluent and wealthy would be able to afford the high costs of genetic modification and create genetically superior humans that would put the poor and the working class at a huge disadvantage. This would eventually lead to an increasingly large gap between the rich and the poor, creating social stratification and social unrest.

Another thing that needs to be taken into consideration is the idea of consent. Afterall, the parents may be directly altering their child’s DNA but doesn’t the child get to have a say too? Shouldn’t the child’s consent matter since they will be the one living with the result of their parents’ decision? Once again, this is another moral grey area that can’t be answered with a straightforward reply.

As attractive as the possibility is for changing a human embryo’s DNA to give it a better quality of life, there are real risks and consequences that come with such power and decision making. Do we have the right to alter a child’s DNA to make them faster, stronger, smarter and prettier? Should the creation of designer babies be allowed? In some sense, altering humans will improve humanity, will it not? All of these questions tie back to the concept of eugenics, and this ideology should not be overlooked or dismissed too quickly, as eugenics has long been part of human history. It has been linked all the way back to the tragedies of Holocaust of World War II, a grave era in history where certain people believed that they were truly “improving humanity” and “bettering the world”. When the future comes, let us tread carefully into it.

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