Gene Editing, Designer Babies, and “The New Eugenics”

Last month, a group of Chinese scientists published a research paper in the journal Protein and Cell that rocked the science and bioethics community. The research reported on experiments involving DNA editing of a human embryo – a first for the international scientific community.

The research, conducted on non-viable embryos, attempted to replace certain genes that cause an often fatal blood disorder. Nick Stockton of explained:

“The technique Huang and his co-investigators used, CRISPR/Cas9, allows researchers to snip out and insert specific segments of genetic code. Discovered in 2012, the technique is the subject of a lot of excitement and trepidation in the cell sciences (and its investors are already being suggested as candidates for a Nobel Prize). Relative to other gene editing techniques, CRISPR/Cas9 is easy to use, and it seems to work in just about every living organism. That means it could, among other possibilities, hold the key to personalized medical therapies, new drugs, and (as the Chinese scientists attempted) human genetic modification.”

Beyond technical concerns about the unknown short and long-term consequences of gene editing in humans, the news has raised profound questions about the ethics of gene editing, with many blocs of scientists calling for a moratorium on human embryonic DNA editing. Wired quoted George Q. Daley, stem cell biologist, who wrote:

“There are two issues: One is trying to understand at a deeper scientific level whether such an approach can be made safely. The second would be the broader and deeper ethical considerations of editing our heredity. I feel very significant concerns about using a new technology to do something as bold as changing someone’s germ line – not just for that individual, but for all of the offspring [emphasis added].”

While there has been much debate about the ethics of “designer babies,”* primarily accomplished through the artificial sorting and selection of sperm, actual DNA manipulation raises similar, if more pronounced, questions about scientists’ ability to “play god,” and how the use of such technologies in practice may reinforce hierarchies of power based on access, class, race, disability, and nationality.


*See the documentary Designer Babies: The New Eugenics (2010) which examines both the ethical implications and practical application of “designing babies.”