In 2015, a groundbreaking study authored by several Chinese researchers sparked both imagination and concern in the world of genetic science and synthetic biology. The scientists had used a technology called CRISPR to modify the DNA of a days old human embryo. Just last week, British scientists published the latest experiment using CRISPR on embryos, following similar work in the United States.
These achievements have spurred intense debate over ethical questions related to the wisdom of making literally life-changing choices for the next generation. The overwhelming response from governmental commissions, scholars, and scientists is to call for amorphous public conversations in order to achieve an ill-defined, society-wide consensus on how to proceed. However, the American public is not equipped to participate in these necessary debates, since even a basic treatment of these new technologies has not yet been included in most K-12 science curricula. It falls to experts to actively engage citizens in order to prepare them to find the right approach to these powerful technologies.
The discoveries gleaned from the Chinese, American, and British experiments on human embryos usher in an era of medicine in which we will have incredible control over the genes of the next generation. This technology could stop disease in its tracks and prevent deaths from diseases like hemophilia and sickle cell anemia. Yet there are important and difficult ethical questions bound up with these benefits; namely, is it moral to modify the genes of our children and what should be the limits of this ability? These questions ought to be publicly debated by experts and citizens alike. But a concrete, productive debate requires adequate education on the technology involved.
CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is an essential part of the immune systems of bacteria and has been present in these organisms since their early development. It allows bacteria to destroy invading viruses by searching for and cutting up specific parts of the viral DNA, thus disabling the virus. By modifying the guide sequence that the CRISPR system uses to search out and cut the target DNA, scientists found that they could effectively modify a cell’s genetic code. And in 2012, several scientists discovered a way to drastically reduce the time and complexity involved in modifying genes, causing an explosion of research using the CRISPR system.
While there are clear health benefits, these technological advances also raise the specter of eugenics, the practice of controlling human breeding in order to move future generations toward some vision of the ideal human. The brutal extermination of Jews and other minority groups conducted by Nazi Germany demonstrates that allowing governments to use technology like CRISPR in combination with the power of coercion to dictate features of our children could quickly lead to eugenics and systematic extermination. Bold citizens who know the pros and cons of genetic technology and how it works will not allow their government to implement modern day, Nazi-like, eugenics practices. They will decide the uses and limits of genetic technology.
Several studies have been completed to try to gauge public attitude toward using CRISPR in human embryos. They have shown, among other things, that education heavily affects how a person perceives the acceptability of genetic technology. Unfortunately, at this point, most Americans do not fully understand the technical and ethical dimensions of CRISPR, mainly because science curricula below the graduate level lags behind the current research. Without this basic understanding, it is impossible to have the conversation needed to sort through these difficult questions.
Experts in government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have attempted public education campaigns about serious issues before. The FDA has an entire division dedicated to answering consumer questions and producing high-quality education materials on its website. The “Real Cost” campaign against adolescent tobacco smoking that the agency undertook proved to be extremely effective in alerting kids to the dangers of smoking. Similar attempts could be made to educate the public on genetic technology.
The pace of research is moving quickly and commercial applications will not be far behind, which means that it is even more important to engage the public soon. Sweden is already undertaking experiments similar to those of the British scientists and South Korean researchers are lobbying the government to scrap regulations barring genetic experiments with embryos.
Government, medicine, and the public need to be ready to safely maximize the benefits of genetic modification. This demands concrete, practical solutions and an educated citizenry that understands both the benefits and pitfalls of genetic technology. We need more than nice-sounding buzzwords and abstract, nebulous calls for broad conversations. Continually repeating such impractical nonsense like “broad societal consensus” doesn’t count.
Jordan Reimschisel is a research assistant focusing on public policy aspects of genetic technology. He is a Young Voices Advocate.