“In the year 6565,/ Ain’t gonna need no husband, won’t need no wife,/ You’ll pick your son, pick your daughter too/ From the bottom of a long glass tube.”
When “In the Year 2525” became a hit song in 1969, author Richard Lee Evans couldn’t have known his prediction about the 66th century would be late by four and a half millennia. Yet here we are.
The glass tube is already here. “In vitro” (literally, “in glass”) fertilization has been practiced since 1978, and produced many births — and the discarding of many more human embryos. But the idea of “picking” the son or daughter you want has taken a leap forward with the discovery of CRISPR.
CRISPR is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” This can be sung to the tune of a song from “Mary Poppins,” and certainly if you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious. What’s important is that CRISPR makes it easier than many thought possible to add, delete or alter specific genes in any organism, including humans.
Many hail this as a step toward eliminating genetic diseases. Indeed, a team of U.S. and Korean scientists has reported progress in “editing” human embryos so they do not carry a defect that can lead to a serious heart condition. But there are at least three moral problems.
The first (and the only problem some scientists acknowledge) is safety. Modifying genes can produce unintended consequences and new genetic defects — and modifying early embryos affects every cell of the later adult, even sperm and egg cells.
“When genetic changes can be passed down from generation to generation,” says one commentator, “even a small mistake could change the human gene pool forever.” In 2016, the U.S. director of national intelligence listed gene editing under the category of potential “weapons of mass destruction.”
The second problem is that this involves harmful, often lethal, nontherapeutic experiments on human beings.
The U.S.-Korean team persuaded a dozen healthy women to take risky superovulatory drugs so they would produce many eggs at once, purely for research use. The scientists fertilized the eggs with sperm from a man with the genetic defect, introducing the CRISPR technique then or shortly afterward in an attempt to correct the defect.
After testing the resulting dozens of embryos and finding many of them to be healthy — they reduced the likelihood of having the defect from 50 percent to 28 percent — they killed them all.
Are scientific societies concerned about basing “progress” on the destruction of countless nascent human lives? No, they celebrate this destruction as the answer to problem No. 1. Until they establish the safety of the procedure, they assure us, no embryo gets out alive.
The third problem arises if and when the technique is safe enough to allow genetically edited children to be born alive. Then it will be available for “picking” favorite traits for our sons and daughters.
The horrors of a society where genetic “enhancement” is accepted have been dramatized by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and the film “Gattaca.” To cite ethicist Leon Kass, we are then well on the way to man himself becoming “the last of man’s man-made things.” Or as Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote, man’s conquest of nature will become the domination of all future generations by a few fallible people in our generation, heralding “the abolition of man.”
Even the Catholic Church has not fully developed the categories for addressing this third massive problem. (No author cited above is Catholic.) Yet the ability to create such a world may be around the corner. We have a lot of work to do.
Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.