The ability to hand-pick your child’s genes, from hair color to intelligence, emotional predisposition to disease susceptibility, is an unfathomable concept, and one that has never been faced by humanity until now. The scientific capability to edit the human genome exists today, and the only thing holding researchers back from editing the recipe that makes us who we are is legislature. Apart from asking the obvious questions of, “is it safe?” or “how much would it cost?”, we need to ask ourselves about the moral ramifications of this new technology. In a world where scientific advancement often outpaces our legislature and even our comprehension of morality, does a concrete answer to the question of, “should gene editing for cosmetic purposes be legal” exist? It’s hard to discuss regulating something that can change what it means to be human. This is the problem we have ahead of us. Although scientists, politicians, and mothers and fathers alike are extremely divided on this topic, I argue wholeheartedly against the legalization of gene editing for anything other than cases of serious and preventable illness.
Although my thesis argues against the legalization of gene editing for cosmetic purposes, are there are any benefits to its legalization or downsides to its illegalization? Absolutely. Editing genes in the case of serious and even lethal conditions related to cosmetics, such as dermatology, does have its upsides. If a burn victim is horribly disfigured from a fire, doctors could modify cells from other parts of his body to regrow his own skin outside his body and then transplant it once the cells mature. If a child has a severe allergic reaction to a drug or allergen and contracts a disfiguring skin condition such as Stevens Johnson Syndrome or Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, scientists could, in theory, repair a lot of the damage. These are considered cosmetic operations; however, they fall under a category some would consider necessitating gene editing. Apart from these rare but serious cases, what about editing the DNA of babies for non-essential cosmetic reasons? There are, again, some instances where this is acceptable. If a baby in its mother’s womb is almost certainly going to be born with a physical deformity such as an eleventh finger, a missing ear, or a condition such as microcephaly (in the case of Zika), editing the genes of this baby may be acceptable. This, however, is where it gets tricky. It would be extremely difficult to regulate the genetic modification of a baby once parts of it are legalized, even for medical conditions. For example, what is considered a “deformity”? How do you classify something as a medical condition instead of an undesired physical impediment? And if doctors are making these decisions who’s not to say that they will “overprescribe” these operations in cases where they are not needed or even not legal? Doctors today overprescribe psychiatric medications such as anxiolytics, sedatives, and stimulants for conditions they are technically not approved for. Would a pregnant adult patient with a close relationship with her doctor be able to convince him that her baby is “deformed” because he will be born undersized and unattractive, necessitating an operation to avoid significant social and emotional stress? Nicholas Agar, biotechnology researcher and published author, agrees.
He explains “the problem is that it is difficult to make the therapy-enhancement distinction principled. It is hard to find definitions of disease suitable to serve as a moral guideline for genetic technologies”. He goes on to say, “social constructivists consider diseases to be states to which society takes a negative attitude. Cancer seems to satisfy the requirements of this definition, but so might homosexuality” (Agar). These cases of ambiguity are what make the legalization of cosmetic gene editing for any circumstance a slippery slope.
There are also economic and philosophical reasons to legalize gene editing for cosmetic purposes. For example, China has already legalized this practice and there are very recent cases where human embryos have been modified. As Varun Bhave from the Princeton Journal of Bioethics points out, gene editing “ignited controversy in April, when scientists in China carried out the first gene editing experiment using the DNA of human embryos” (Bhave). The biotechnology and chemical sciences industries are the fastest growing in the world, and whichever country lays claim over this market first could have the next “Silicon Valley”.
If regulation holds corporations and investors back in the United States, it’s likely that China will dominate this market, moving jobs and money out of the US. And speaking of domestic employment: another reason for the legalization of cosmetic gene editing in the US is it could create many jobs and spur economic growth. Cosmetics constituted a $62 billion industry in 2016; and that’s just for makeup, fragrances, and hair and skin products (Stewart). Imagine how much more people would pay to be able to customize their children and to some extent themselves. Have brown hair and want to be blonde? Don’t dye it, just change it for good! Insurance companies may play a heavy role in this debate as well. Yury Verlinsky brings up the idea that “insurance companies… may refuse to cover newborn malformations that could have been corrected before implantation,” (Verlinsky 2). This may force parents into an uncomfortable situation, where the only financially feasible option is to edit their baby despite their opposition to it. Although this sounds like a negative outcome, is allowing insurance premiums to skyrocket due to preventable conditions, cosmetic or not, a better alternative?
In addition to economic reasons, there are also, of course, some philosophical and ethical reasons for its legalization. Citizens should have the freedom of choice. It’s bad for us to drink and smoke, but those activities are legal and it is our choice on what to do with our bodies. Just as we choose what to feed our children, or what medicine they take, we should be able to edit their genes as we see fit, not the government. Sarah Ly agrees, confirming that many “bioethicists have argued that parents have a right to prenatal autonomy, which grants them the right to decide the fate of their children,” (Ly). Although many of these pro-legalization points are valid, there are still far more medical, economic, and philosophical arguments against the legalization of cosmetic gene editing.
The first and most important argument against cosmetic gene editing is the concomitant socioeconomic divide that may result. The western world already has a racial and income inequality problem. Racial minorities are stuck in poorer neighborhoods and suffer economic hardships, malnutrition, less than sufficient education, and lower life expectancies due to higher rates of birth defects and preventable diseases. The availability of high-cost procedures available only to the wealthy that could modify a child’s genes so that he grows to become smarter, happier, healthier, and more attractive that his less-than affluent counterparts would only exacerbate this situation and give the elite yet another advantage.
Philip Kitcher touches upon this, saying that the “obvious concern is that the opportunities would not be open to all. We imagine the privileged fashioning a superrace, while the masses are left to cope with debilitating or degenerative diseases,” (Kitcher 124). Children born into poor families simply could not compete with designer babies, as they are genetically inferior in every way. Over time, this may bifurcate the human race and form two distinct evolutionary species of homo sapiens: those who have everything and can live a century or more, and those who die early due to disease and have no upward mobility. Imagine the kind of rifts and animosity this technology could cause between groups.
Another philosophical question that likely argues against the legalization of cosmetic gene editing is this: do we want to change what it means to be human? Ever since we were children we were taught to be comfortable in our own bodies and ignore insecurities due to physical imperfections. We are all unique and special, we were told. But what if we could all be the same; what if we could all be perfect? If parents are allowed to design their babies humanity is conceding that there is an ideal human being and anything less is unacceptable. Children who aren’t edited may feel even more insecure as they watch everyone around them mature into perfect beings that can outshine and outthink them. Another factor to consider is similar to the abortion debate. Is it okay to edit a baby without the consent of that baby? What if this baby does not like or agree with the idea that they were edited as they grow into an adult, but can’t do nothing about it? And how will this affect their relationship with their parents? If your parents are supposed to love you unconditionally, then why did they feel the need to edit you? As debates flare up, many people will argue that the baby deserves a voice and cannot be edited because it cannot speak for itself yet. Another interesting point to raise is the possibility that 200 years from now every human may look the exact same. If everyone chooses the latest and most desirable physical characteristics, assuming the procedure is affordable, nothing will differentiate us and uniqueness will cease to exist. All these debates are purely philosophical and subjective. My opinion may vary greatly from yours, but the argument I’m trying to make here is this could potentially have drastic and detrimental effects on the defining characteristics that make us human. In such a circumstance, it’s wise to err on the side of caution.
A scientific argument against the legislative approval of cosmetic gene-editing is that it could be potentially harmful to the overall health of humanity over time. It is a known scientific phenomenon that when genetic diversity decreases, the likelihood that the entire species dies off goes up. If humans begin editing our own species in the direction of an “ideal” human being, that means we will all likely become more similar. Over time, if we all have the same flawless genes controlling our health, cognition, and appearances, one virus or bacteria could wipe us all out. The variation in genomes between humans would have disappeared, meaning if one person can get infected and die, everyone can. This is happening right now in the Cavendish banana. Scientists and farmers picked one banana that they believed was “ideal” because of its bug resistance, water consumption, and taste, and replicated it millions of times so that every banana you buy in a US supermarket is a clone of all the others. They are all the same. One year, a disease called “Tropical Race 4” was found in a dead banana plant, and sure enough a few years later this species of banana is nearly extinct. Soon there will be no bananas, that is until they genetically modify them again and start the whole process over. Lower genetic diversity will have a whole host of other problems as well. It could lead to symptoms of inbreeding causing diseases like autism or other neurological problems. The point is removing evolution from humanity’s story could be VERY dangerous. Never in the history of life on earth has evolution been removed so as to not play a role in the direction of a species. Who knows what could happen? Why risk it?
There are myriad reasons why genetic engineering for cosmetic purposes should be made illegal, and there are practically innumerable reasons for why humanity should at least postpone any decisions. Safety concerns aside, we simply are not ethically caught up with the pace of technology yet. This is a very significant problem, and its ramifications are substantial and far-reaching; the futures of our children are at stake (Halco 2). Despite the ambiguous and urgent nature surrounding the regulation of gene editing, what is certain is that the frequency of humanity’s debates on this topic needs to increase. Until we can be certain that the benefits of cosmetic gene editing will outweigh any potential negatives, it must remain illegal. I’d like to end with a quote from Bill McKibben’s essay, Designer Genes: “Every time you turn your back this technology creeps a little closer. Gallops, actually, growing and spreading as fast as the internet. One moment you’ve sort of heard of it; the next moment it’s everywhere… For the moment we remain, if barely, a fully human species. And so we have time yet to consider, to decide, to act. This is arguably the biggest decision humans will ever make,” (7).
Agar, Nicholas. “Designer Babies: Ethical Considerations”. Action Bioscience, American
Institute of Biological Sciences, April 2006,
actionbioscience.org/biotechnology/agar.html#primer. Accessed 19 March 2017.
Bhave, Varun. “The Applications and Ethics of Gene Editing”. Princeton Journal of Bioethics,
27 November 2015, pjb.mycpanel2.princeton.edu/wp/index.php/2015/11/27/the-applications-and-ethics-of-gene-editing/. Accessed 21 March 2017.
Halco, M.J. “Designer Genes: Our Future in Bioengineering”. Y1 Writes: A Collection of Student
Essays, vol. 3, pp. 100-101. Northern Illinois University Department of English,
Kitcher, Philip. The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities.
Ly, Sarah. “Ethics of Designer Babies”. Embryo Project Encyclopedia, 31 March 2011,
embryo.asu.edu/pages/ethics-designer-babies. Accessed 20 March 2017.
McKibben, Bill. “Designer Genes”. Orion Magazine, orionmagazine.org/article/designer-genes/.
Accessed 21 March 2017.
Stewart, Caitlin. “The Beauty Market: New Forecasts and Trends”. Market Research, 19 January
Verlinsky, Yury. “Designing Babies: What the Future Holds”. Reproductive BioMedicine
Online, vol. 10, pp. 24-26, 2005, dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1472-6483(10)62200-6. Accessed 18 March 2017.