Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9 has been in the news quite a bit recently and has gotten many researchers excited about the prospect of precision gene editing. With this technology, it has become exponentially faster and cheaper to edit the genomes of individual organisms, with far greater accuracy and certainty than any other time in history. CRISPR may very well be the gateway to genetic engineering, the likes of which have previously been confined to the realm of science fiction — designer babies, cures for otherwise incurable diseases and fantastic superhuman abilities all seem feasible if this technology continues to develop and expand. In the face of such awesome potential, there have understandably been several ethical and practical concerns over CRISPR’s application, and while some are more valid than others, none outweigh the world of good that can be achieved by embracing this technology.
One of the more ethically-geared arguments against using CRISPR to edit away traits like cerebral palsy, muscle-eye-brain disease, blindness or Down syndrome spectrum disorders is that it is fundamentally ableist and dismissive of those born with such disabilities. Proponents of this view argue that “mankind is still unable to distinguish between positive, world-creating forms of disability and negative, world-destroying forms — between Deafness, short stature or certain types of neurodiversity and chronic pain, Tay-Sachs or Alzheimer’s.” While on the surface this argument could come off as accepting and egalitarian, it is in fact one that rationalizes unnecessary suffering and causes real harm. Imagine being born blind or with cerebral palsy, and being told that this disability could’ve been avoided but intentionally wasn’t because diversity of ability is important. It is absurd to let people go on being afflicted by these often debilitating impairments, just as it would be absurd to intentionally avoid prescription glasses, wheelchairs or the use of sign language. No one is suggesting that CRISPR be used to forcibly modify individuals already living with these conditions, but for those who wish to live with all the faculties of the average person, and for those yet unborn who don’t have a say in the matter, it is a moral imperative that we use this technology to relieve the potential for suffering where possible.
Another more practical argument against CRISPR is the potential for misuse by bioterrorists or incompetent researchers. CRISPR can be used to build gene drives in certain species. For example, one mosquito can be modified to not transmit malaria, in such a way that the mosquito will eventually spread this modification to many other members of its species. Through this method, entire populations can be modified very quickly, allowing for ecological engineering on a level that was once unthinkable. However, this technique could also be used poorly: gene drives could spiral out of control, either intentionally or by accident, and wreak environmental havoc for generations. While this prospect is intimidating, it is only more reason to invest resources into CRISPR research so that such mistakes are less likely to happen. CRISPR is happening no matter what, and only by embracing it and all its potential can we hope to use it for good.
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A version of this appeared in the Monday, Nov. 20 print edition. Email Henry Cohen at [email protected]