A recent article in Nature Biotechnology reports on the risks and benefits of the therapeutic use of CRISPR-Cas9 “gene scissors” technology. This technology allows genetic material to be added, removed or altered at particular locations in the genome.

The scientists wanting to use CRISPR-Cas9 to change an embryo’s germline genes want to eliminate horrible genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s chorea, muscular dystrophy, diabetes and so on. 

But no matter how worthy their intentions, scientists would be designing or redesigning a human being. Transhumanists see this as creating a human utopia of the future. They speak of “unmodified humans” as inferior beings and foresee a future of immortality made possible by the genetic modification of genes responsible for aging. Do all humans, however, have a right to come from unmodified natural human origins and should this right be absolute or should some strictly limited exceptions be allowed?

The American Jewish philosopher, the late Hans Jonas, put it this way. “Every human being has a right to their own unique ticket in the great genetic lottery of the passing on of human life. A right not to be designed. A right to live their life as a surprise to themselves.”

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has pointed out that the designed person is not free, because freedom requires us to have non-contingent origins to enable us to go back and recreate ourselves from scratch.  Moreover, they are not equal to the designer, because the designed entity is never equal to the designer. This analysis takes the issues raised by designing our progeny beyond concern just for the individual who is designed. It has political implications, because two of the pillars of democracy are respect for every individual’s freedom and accepting that everyone is equal.

Wanting to design one’s child to enhance them sends the message that “you were not perfect enough as you were naturally, we needed to improve you to conform to our specifications for us to accept and love you.”

Australian bioethicist Robert Sparrow from Monash University has raised another issue. He pointed out that just as our laptops and iPhones become obsolete models as the technology continuously improves, so earlier conceived children will be obsolete compared with their later designed siblings. What would this do to family cohesiveness and harmony?

Child centred decision-making would ask, among many questions: can we reasonably anticipate, if this person were here and able to decide for themselves, that they would consent to what we are planning to do?

Larger ethical questions raised by CRISPR-Cas9 at the societal level include treating our children as products or things that we own – as “somethings” not “somebodies”, a phenomenon called “reification” – rather than unique individual human beings with respect to whom we have obligations, but not rights to design.

Full story at mercator.net.