Genetic modification has come a long way since the beginning of this field of research and much now appears to be possible. The genetic modification of animals has proven controversial over the years, but not quite as contentious as the genome editing of our own species. Just because it’s now possible for us to edit human DNA, does that mean it’s ethical and we should do so?
The Safety of Genetic Engineering
While editing genes, it’s possible for off-target effects to take place, (where the edit appears in the wrong place), or even for what is called mosaicism, which is where some cells will carry the edit, but others don’t. The effects of edits appearing in the wrong place, and mosaicism, could prove deadly, and little is known about the consequences of such errors taking place. While many scientists would agree that research should continue into the safety of genetic editing (particularly germline), it’s also widely accepted that it shouldn’t be used in clinical reproductive settings, until its safety and effectiveness can be shown. Germline genetic editing means the edits will be passed down through all of the following generations, meaning mistakes made could be long-lasting, and be present in the offspring of those who underwent the editing.
As has undoubtedly been the case with most new technologies over time, concerns have been raised that the availability of such a possibility such as gene editing will be limited to the extremely wealthy. The concern is that the disparity in access to healthcare and other interventions will be intensified. There’s also the possibility for new classes to be created across society, which are based on the quality of people’s engineered DNA.
Issues such as informed consent also come into play when we’re considering the ethics behind genetic engineering in humans. For instance, when the risks of editing the DNA of embryos are currently little known by researchers, how can a prospective parent truly consent to a procedure which will impact all subsequent generations?
The genetic modification of humans is potentially one of the most significant ethical dilemmas which modern-day science has to face. We now know that the genetic makeup of our species can be modified, with diseases potentially being eradicated, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right to do this, and many people have religious objections to such interference with our genes too.