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Is Gene Editing Ethical?

Ishaan Busireddy

Throughout history, revolutionary innovations ranging from agriculture to the internet have altered human being’s bodies. Gene-editing is one of these innovations, and it was crucially enabled by the 2012 discovery of CRISPR-Cas9, which precisely cuts DNA. Just as past developments did, gene-editing technology sparked a complex ethical debate regarding the morals of directly altering the very biological essence of humanity. I argue gene-editing is ethical because it can prevent debilitating genetic diseases and be regulated.

The paramount reason for adoption of gene-editing technology is its ability to cure rare genetic disorders such as immune deficiency, hemophilia, blindness, and leukemia. Considering such disorders or illnesses are either life-threatening or disabling, denying effective gene-editing treatment is unethical for patients. Prohibiting gene-editing would do more harm than good by depriving patients of a chance to live. Fearing preventable dangers, we should not take away their hope.

Many scientists noted the potential to cure diseases with known genetic sources and prevent inheritability. Yet, others have posited potential unforeseen impacts on patients and descendants. The hitherto mentioned concerns flared after He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, edited two twin embryos to make them and their descendants HIV-immune. Given the lack of ethical boundaries and the inheritability of the alteration, massive controversy erupted from He’s research, and he was promptly arrested.

Thus, the international scientific community called for regulations. Such regulation is reasonable given that older technology, such as nuclear technology, are globally regulated. As soon as regulation was introduced in the 1950s, nuclear energy was effectively contained with few incidents to date. The only historical disaster was Chernobyl in 1986, but this is a case study of what occurs when regulated protocol is broken–further highlighting its need.

In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has envisioned similar recommendations for the regulation of gene-editing stating precautions including condemning unregistered research, monitoring a genomic registry, reporting unsafe activity, and engaging in global dialogue. A safe path has already begun for gene-editing. In the future, the WHO will convene an expert committee to determine better monitoring and technologies of concern, discuss with multi-sector stakeholders to understand gene-editing’s repercussions beyond the medical field, and develop educational web-material. This comprehensive approach will maintain and improve ethicality.

Indeed, the ethical elephant in the room is unaffordable, unregulated healthcare. While making gene-editing an option is one part of the equation, accessibility to this option is equally as important. To truly promote ethics, the WHO must take steps in encouraging or mandating affordable healthcare to address the global accessibility crisis instead of barring gene-editing. Accountability agreements, similar to those for climate change or subsidies dedicated to promoting affordability–combined with strictly-regulated gene-editing–will eliminate ethical issues and create a safer future.

Overall, gene-editing can be ethical because it can be regulated and cures life-threatening and disabling conditions. It is on the WHO and fellow governmental bodies to address inaccessibility of treatments by establishing global affordable healthcare. We must welcome the next frontier in gene-editing as progress, not endangerment.

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