Altering the Human Genome

For years scientists and ethicists have worried about the ramifications of altering the human genome in ways that can be inherited from generation to generation.  Although many recognize the benefits of switching DNA for disease prevention and cures, the fear lies in using these techniques for genetic enhancement—altering genetic traits to create “designer babies.” This fear is now real, according to a front page article in today’s New York Times by Nicholas Wade.  Biologists Jennifer A. Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley and Emma-nuelle Chapentier of Umea University in Sweden and have invented a new technique which has this dual capability:  preventing disease and crafting preferable human traits.

When a person opts for self-enhancement, it generally affects that person.  For example, a burn victim might opt for plastic surgery to treat facial scars.  But if parents were able, for example, to change a fetus’ eye color, or create a child who was more intelligent, artistic, or athletic, those changes would affect generations to come.  The idea of “designer babies” brings back chilling memories of the U.S. eugenics movement during the 19th and 20th centuries when about 60,000 people were sterilized, including the mentally ill, poor teenagers, young girls who had been raped, people with epilepsy, and those who were considered feebleminded.  If people can dictate the genetic abilities of their offspring, how far away are we from the Nazi dream of creating a perfect race?  Where should society draw the line?

Dr. Doudna and a group of biologists have called for a global ban on further development of this technique until the science community, medical ethicists, and the public, have aired its implications and determined appropriate uses.  Although scientists are years away from human experimentation and clinical trials, now is the time to set world-wide guidelines and limits.


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