CRISPR Babies and the Ethics of Genetic Class Warfare

Last month, Chinese national He Jiankui flouted a vigorous scientific debate when he told a room full of scientists that he had manipulated the embryos of Chinese twins, using Crispr, and made one resistant to their father’s HIV. He announced to the group that the twins of the experiment had already been born.

The big reveal was ethically dubious at best. He never went through proper channels to get his experiment approved. The scientist is being condemned by his contemporaries for ignoring universally respected protocol and forgoing peer research. In The Washington Post, Eileen Hunt Botting wrote that He’s experiment had “no moral or scientific justification, given that the medical profession can successfully prevent fathers from transmitting HIV without genetic engineering.” Botting went on to compare He’s experiment to popular science fiction: “However extreme their scenarios, both ‘Gattaca’ and ‘Frankenstein’ remind us that all children are vulnerable to discrimination based on factors beyond their control—including circumstances shaped by artificial reproductive technology.”

When we think about genetic engineering, we tend to think in absolute terms—a black-and-white stance with a barrier that, once crossed, leads to the downfall of civilization as we know it. In reality, we make genetic decisions all the time, in ways that are already subtly altering the people who make up society. It might seem strange to group He’s experiment alongside the more common genetic procedures parents use to ensure their offspring don’t inherit diseases. Yet both exist within a system in which—generally—only the economically privileged are able to pay for treatment to alter the traits that their offspring will and won’t inherit. The danger isn’t in the procedure itself, but who has access to this type of medicine—and right now that group is limited to those who can pay.

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