A Chinese scientist claims to have edited the genes of two embryos using Crispr-Cas9 – the scientific world is up in arms about this ethical breach. It shouldn’t be for two rather different reasons. The first being that we decide upon which genes should live every time there’s an abortion for disability reasons. The second being that even if we restrict ourselves to positive actions we still all do such gene editing. The only difference here is the method of doing so and a technology, in and of itself, cannot be moral or not, it’s the action that may or may not be.
So this is all very much overblown:
Scientists have expressed anger and doubt over a Chinese geneticist’s claim to have edited the genes of twin girls before birth, as government agencies ordered investigations into the experiment. A global outcry started after the genetic scientist He Jiankui claimed in a video posted on YouTube on Monday that he had used the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9 to modify a particular gene in two embryos before they were placed in their mother’s womb. He said the genomes had been altered to disable a gene known as CCR5, blocking the pathway used by the HIV virus to enter cells. Some scientists at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing, which began on Tuesday in Hong Kong, said they were appalled the scientist had announced his work without following scientific protocols, including publishing his findings in a peer-reviewed journal. Others cited the ethical problems raised by creating essentially enhanced humans.
We do indeed make decisions upon which genes should survive in abortion decisions. Down’s Syndrome, for example, is pretty much gone in some European countries in the youngest cohorts of children. The incidence of the foetal abnormality is as it ever was – possibly even rising, given the later age of pregnancy these days – but the incidence at birth very much lower. Which is of course gene editing of a fairly messy kind.
But David Friedman has it right on the eugenics argument here:
I am particularly unsympathetic with the way in which “eugenics” is used as a bogey word, since it confuses two quite different things. Eugenics in the sense of some people deciding what children other people will have is a bad thing, especially when it involves some people deciding that other people will not be permitted to have children. Eugenics in the sense of couples trying to improve the quality of the children they have seems like a reasonable and unobjectionable activity. At the individual level it happens every time someone includes, in the choice of whom to marry, the consideration of what sort of children the proposed spouse will produce.
Crispr is just a different manner of doing something we’ve all been doing for millennia at least. And as above, a technology doesn’t have moral implications, it’s the act which may or may not.
All of this before we even consider the inherent colonialism of the complaint. Why should foreigners, from some other moral tradition entirely, be forced to act as we wish they would?
It’s foreigners doing what we morally disapprove of. And the insistence is that they must be stopped, these foreigners, from doing what we disapprove of. This is colonialism again, isn’t it? If it isn’t, why isn’t it?