Balancing the Benefits and Ethics of Genetic Engineering

I will argue that while genetic engineering technologies like CRISPR have the potential to greatly benefit society, their ethical implications must be carefully considered and regulated in order to prevent harm to individuals and society as a whole.

As we live in a time when technology shapes everything we do, genetic engineering has never been more promising a path to revolutionize medicine, agriculture, and a score of other areas. A consistently emerging and garnering of the lion’s share of attention is the stunningly innovative technology called CRISPR-Cas9, which has, in just a few short years, become the go-to tool for editing genes in a way that is both extremely precise and highly efficient. While we embrace opportunities resulting from our ever-advancing knowledge of how to edit genes, the ethical considerations related to these technologies loom large. They hold the potential to rid the world of diseases that affect the human genome and to improve our species overall. The concept of a disease-free world is so desirable that it is easy to forget the mistakes we have made in the past when we took genetics to be a promising foundation for improving health and well-being. If we are not extremely careful in crafting a framework of rules, rights, and responsibilities, we could well find ourselves in another state of unintended consequences—this one more serious than before. This paper looks at how the power of CRISPR technology lies in both its potential to bring about dramatic change and the serious ethical issues that come with it. I will maintain that CRISPR and similar technologies have really cool, world-changing possibilities, but they also come with strings attached. Implausible possibilities must be balanced with hard-to-meet, really important ethical standards. We will sort through this together, so that you come away with a textured understanding of the topic.

In order to better understand the delicate balance that is struck between the upsides and the moral concerns associated with genetic engineering, especially in regards to the rapidly developing CRISPR technology, one must first take stock of the benefits and potential drawbacks of said research. At its genesis, genetic study focused on the identification and diagnosis of hereditary diseases—work not regarded as in any way controversial. Work on cures for hereditary diseases, too, can hardly be seen as a morally compromising act. After all, who would not want to see those stricken by such diseases lead normal and fulfilling lives? Rephrased: The expansion in biotechnology is not limited to the treatment of non-communicable diseases. It also involves “revolutionary advancements” like recombinant drugs and genetic modification of whole organisms such as fruits or animals. These seemingly incredible applications could significantly eliminate public health problems. And they might indeed do so—if, as the paper argues, the rather lengthy list of potential ailments that biotech promises to address is ever realized. Genetic improvements might cause an inappropriate societal divide. We could end up where those who can afford such improvements gain enormous advantages, allowing them to excel in ways that even our current moneyed elite can’t. And, for some of us, there’s just something that seems way more off-kilter about making these sorts of long-term, heritable modifications in a lab versus letting nature and nurture work their messy magic. In summary, the great promise of CRISPR is accompanied by the very great need for stringent regulation. This powerfully innovative technology is potentially world-changing, for it offers society the chance to not just treat genetic diseases but to eliminate them altogether, if we can muster the collective will to do so. It is, therefore, Missouri’s perspective, and my own, that the benefits of CRISPR research are not yet outweighed by the risks. Yet we must remain on high alert because the genie may already be out of the bottle.

To sum up, CRISPR-Cas9 and other genetic engineering methods are causing a paradigm shift in scientific progress. They stand to revolutionize medicine, their advocates say, by enabling researchers to tinker with genes themselves, snipping out pieces they have identified as linked to illness and splicing in healthy substitutes. But promises of a cure may be just the beginning. These are precise tools that can be used to effect a wide range of changes, not only in people’s bodies but also in the natural world and in art—and they are already here, being used with a speed that alarms even some of their enthusiasts. The potential for wiping out genetic diseases and making humans better is alluring. But if we don’t have strong oversight and make sure we’re doing it morally, we could pay a huge price for whatever we gain: We might “enhance” people’s lives in ways that actually diminish their quality, for example. And what if the kinds of mistakes humans are bound to make with that kind of awesome power turn out to be irreversible? The genetic revolution is almost upon us, and it is crucial to be measured in our speed going forward. Just because something is technologically possible does not necessitate that we do it, and playing around with our offspring’s genes is something the scientific, ethical, and social communities need to figure out before CRISPR editing or similar techniques are ready for prime time. We can take genetic engineering’s rearranging of our core atomic makeup to do useful things and still be the kind of society that has its eyes open to a vastly rearranged world.

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