We won't be using this technology to create genetically modified people until there has been a lot more research. There's also going to have to be an ethical and legal debate. Is there something worrisome about editing an embryo's genes? There might be, but we need to be careful to have the right worries. It's very easy to have worries that just don't make sense.
Take this Time Magazine op-ed, by Joel Michael Reynolds. The title says it all: Gene Editing Might Mean My Brother Would've Never Existed. His brother Jason had muscle-eye-brain disease and had "muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, severe nearsightedness, hydrocephalus and intellectual disability." Jason was lovely and beloved, and so Reynolds questions a technology that would prevent Jason from ever existing.
It's no fun criticizing someone who reveals love and grief in the way Reynolds does, but this worry about a specific person not existing is the wrong worry to have. There are many things we do to control who is born that are either neutral or mandatory, but would alter who exists.
- Picture the debate that went on before contraceptives were available. An opponent of legalizing contraceptives could look at his unplanned little brother and say that if his parents had had access to contraceptive technology, the boy wouldn't have existed. That fact surely has no weight at all, however much it may be painful to imagine a world without a specific person.
- Imagine a woman being told by her dermatologist not to conceive a child while she's taking Accutane, because Accutane causes abnormalities. She ignores this advice and conceives a child with some abnormalities. Should she really feel good about her choice, because without it, her child wouldn't have been born?
We are simply confused when we object to an action or practice because, if opted for, this lovely and beloved child wouldn't have been born. At the time that we're choosing the action or practice, there are millions of possible children who could come into existence, and there's nothing that says that the one who actually will be born should be born.
Reynolds is concerned that Jason be born, but also that people like Jason be born. He gives us this description of Jason's life, to convince us that that he wasn't worse off than other children.
He lived past his first year thanks to marvels of modern medicine. A shunt surgery to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid building up around his brain took six attempts, but the seventh succeeded. Aside from those surgeries’ complications and intermittent illnesses due to a less-than-robust immune system, Jason was healthy. Healthy and happy — very happy. His smile could light up a room. Yet, that didn’t stop people from thinking that his disability made him worse off.This reminds me of the old joke: "Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs Lincoln?" I don't see how a string of surgeries, complications, and illness, in someone who evidently died before the age of two, leaves very much to be good. It's not ableist, but just realistic, to think Jason was worse off than other babies.
Reynolds chocks it up to ableism that many parents would like to avoid having a baby like Jason. But even he seems to admit there are health problems that ought to be avoided.
We, who are often 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. It is with great responsibility that we as a society balance along the tightrope of biomedical progress.I don't know about putting muscle-eye-brain disease in the "positive, world-creating" list, as if babies could creatively construct their own distinctive way of life and identity, in the manner that some people with deafness and short stature say that they do. The heart problem that was eliminated by the CRISPR research also doesn't seem to belong on the "positive, world-creating" list.
So what's the right worry to have? I do think gene editing could lead to far too much choosiness in prospective parents--too much constructing of the preferred child and too little receptiveness. It could be over-used. I don't think there's a good, coherent reason to think it should never be used.