It’s a tired and clichéd science fiction plot: thousands of identical designer babies ferreted out in assembly line fashion, the process of birth lost to a perverted form of capitalism. Whether we like it or not, the ability to predetermine genetic traits now exists outside the realm of fiction. In fact, throughout the world there is a debate taking place about the legality of gene therapy and its ability to aid children in utero suffering from genetic disorders. Instead of fearing hypothetical abuses of this technology, we should embrace its potential to alleviate the suffering of millions of people and their families.
In April, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority assured the government of the United Kingdom that “mitochondrial replacement” was a safe technology. This recommendation was met with harsh criticism, from members of the religious right and beyond. The practice would allow for the manipulation of patients’ DNA in order to prevent mitochrondial defects. Though this technology is a specific instance of gene therapy, its implementation could lead to other forms of DNA manipulation prior to birth. This technology has the potential to treat many chronic genetic disorders. Everything from predisposition to cancer to Huntington’s disease could be treated if this technology were approved and subsidized by the UK government.
Religious groups responded by condemning the practice as “playing God.” In their logic, some people are given heavier crosses to bear and to tamper with predetermined traits is to tamper with God’s plan. It is easy to make this argument if one is blessed with healthy children. I’d wager that if the opponents of this technology were blessed with a child suffering from a mitochrondrical disorder, they’d be singing a different tune. In fact, it seems sinful to withhold from intervening when it has the power to alleviate suffering. Without the early onset of dementia or heart failure, a child of God is much more capable of serving a higher power.
The religious argument which deems medical intervention illegitimate has ugly consequences. If we accept every malady as a necessary consequence of faith, the entire practice of medicine must be eliminated. I don’t think the majority of God-fearing individuals would support this policy.
Some are against genetic modification technology arguing that it will most likely end in a genetic class warfare in which the rich create perfect, superior children and the poor are left behind, unable to purchase this medical treatment. This is a slippery slope argument. First, this takes the technology completely out of context and suspends certain conventions of reality; each new use of gene manipulation would be subject to similar debate. If we denied all forms of technology simply because they had the potential for abuse, there would be no innovation. Technology is like any tool. Tools can be used for good and bad, but the tool itself is not inherently bad. What if we told the first man to harness fire that he should stop because it had the potential to burn him? We’d all be freezing to death, eating raw meat in a dark cave! We cannot accept the status quo simply because it is more comfortable. Opponents of genetic modification technology must re-focus their fear into strict regulation to prevent its misuse. The benefits of gene therapy outweigh the risks.