Illustration by Sadie Favour '23

The genome-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 harbors as much excitement as it does uncertainty. With the ability to play God, the new technology is bringing various questions previously deemed science-fiction to contemporary politics. A quick scan of the internet results in a variety of issues from moral, legal and religious perspectives. As questions concerning how we might utilize this new technology rapidly approach the front headlines, where should we draw the line? I’m inclined to think that non-essential gene-editing should not take place.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a potentially dangerous technology that, while one of the most fascinating and important developments of our time, results in equally pressing ethical dilemmas. Not only does its use in non-essential gene editing spark immediate backlash from scientists and the general population alike, but pop-culture classics like “Jurassic Park” and “Gattaca” should serve as quick reminders of how fast gene-editing can get out of control.

The fear lies in the potential for designer babies: genetically modified, selected or enhanced humans. CRISPR-Cas9 should not be used for any purposes beyond essential editing. In other words, gene editing may be conducted in an embryo that is showing signs of, say, sickle cell disease. However, any editing beyond that which is essential for the survival of a given human — or future human — should not be done under any circumstances.

Getting involved in a non-essential gene selection process is unethical; the notion of genetic superiorities would prove divisive. Furthermore, meddling in nature’s place is wrong. To suppose we should commandeer nature’s role is to oppose the very force that created us.

As the director of the National Institute of Health Dr. Francis Collins put it, “Humans have been reproducing for millennia aided only by the DNA mutations that arise naturally, and for us to begin directing that process ​seems almost perverse.” Playing God, it seems, makes people rightfully uncomfortable.

According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, only 15 percent of U.S. adults were in favor of nonessential enhancements to a human genome. One answer to these concerns comes in the form of a global observatory — an organization of scientists from various fields — that could potentially guide the technology’s utilization around the world. Certainly this would help calm popular worries about the technology.

While the ability to pick a person’s eye color is about the extent to which the technology has developed, it’s important to remember how this simple choice sets the precedent for future applications. Choosing someone’s height, muscle building propensity or athleticism cannot be the precedent.

Extreme ethical and moral boundaries present CRISPR-Cas9 with potential thresholds to its advancement. Society is not ready for what it is fully capable of: a testament to the incredible nature of its development. My fear of what could happen if CRISPR-Cas9 is used inappropriately can be appropriately summarized in the words of Ian Malcom’s, the mathematician in “Jurassic Park”: “Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid who’s found his dad’s gun.”


peper1@stolaf.edu

Steve Peper ’22 is from

Chaska, MN.

His majors are economics and history.