Is it wrong to design your baby? Not if everybody else is doing it. And if there’s one thing Medicine’s Big Breakthrough: Editing Your Genes makes clear, it’s that sooner or later everybody else is going to do it.
They’re going to be right to do it too - after all, who doesn’t want to give their children a better life? Because whatever the deal-breaker is for you as a parent, whatever that one thing is that you think will make your child’s life undeniably better, sooner or later it’s going to be possible to add that to your child.
Medicine’s Big Breakthrough: Editing Your Genes looks at CRISPR, a cutting-edge technique that can very precisely edit DNA in any target organism. It’s amazingly easy to do – this documentary shows one person with a set-up in their garage – and it promises (or threatens) to change just about everything around us, from the way food tastes to our pets and the very nature of humanity itself.
Obviously the first temptation with this kind of thing is to worry that mad scientists are about to wildly create a generation of super-freaks. Fortunately we’re not living in 1952 and a bunch of guys in white coats haven’t just walked in waving a bunch of documents detailing some Nazi “science” experiments saying, “This looks interesting. Let’s give it a go."
Remember Dolly the sheep, back in 1996? Remember how the announcement that scientists had cloned a sheep sparked off a mass wave in human cloning and today you can’t go to the shops without tripping over three botched copies of your uncle Vlad? Oh right, we’re still waiting for that.
When a process that promises so much comes along, people are wary. Clearly the only way this kind of thing would possibly be done before it was totally super-safe is if the benefits far outweighed the risks… which, when you’re talking about something as wide-ranging as what CRISPR promises, is most definitely the case.
And yet scientists around the world are taking it slowly, making sure the science is safe every step of the way. You might think the concern would be for the people this treatment could help rather than the people it could harm – after all, the people who this could help are sick right now, not abstract figures in an argument set in a hypothetical future.
That’s not to say people worried about genetically tampering with their unborn children are wrong. We all have this ingrained idea that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. And yet, time and time again, science has delivered us from the horrors of the past with only the kinds of drawbacks or side effects we’re willing to live with. Are we mourning the loss of polio from our society? Do we miss the days of thousands of people dying from minor infections? Are heart transplants somehow “too good to be true”?
If your main concern about doing this kind of thing is that it’s being done to children, then is tweaking the genes of your child any worse than, say, deciding at age three that your child is going to be a golf prodigy and forcing them to train for hours a day every day? Or thinking your child has musical talent and enrolling them in an endless series of classes throughout their childhood and teenage years?
If your argument is that the parents are making a choice for their children that will shape their lives without the child’s consent, then congratulations – you’ve just figured out what being a parent entails.
People’s objections to this kind of thing will last right up until the moment a scientist comes out and says, “Editing this gene will mean your child will live to 120 in reasonable health,” or “Editing this gene will prevent Alzheimer’s,” or “Editing this gene will prevent male pattern baldness,” or “Editing this gene will make your child tall."
And once one parent has done it, who will want to be left behind? The pressure at schools is already intense when it comes to having the right accessories - what will happen when this pressure extends to your child’s very genes?
The problem of the future isn’t going to be whether children should have their genes tweaked - that’s coming and we should welcome it. It’s going to be when the technology advances enough to allow parents to get caught up in fads.
If it’s bad enough today when parents want to name their child Katniss or Khaleesi, what happens when four-fifths of their primary school class have bright green eyes or six fingers or naturally day-glo hair?
Watch Medicine’s Big Breakthrough: Editing Your Genes on Tuesday, 4 April at 10pm on SBS.