When Baby Genes Are for Sale, the Rich Will Pay

October 23, 2017, 8:34 PM UTC

Designer babies are coming in 20 to 30 years. Your children will be able to select, to some degree, their own children’s hair color, eye color, and, possibly their intelligence. How can we make sure that everyone benefits from these capabilities, rather than reserving them for those with more cash?

The affordable and effective CRISPR technique for modifying DNA has made genetic manipulation akin to cutting and pasting characters in a Microsoft Word document. Equally important, the cost of gene sequencing is dropping fast. It is presently below $1,000 for a human genome to be sequenced and should fall below $100 over the next few years.

With cheaper gene sequencing, the cost of researching genetic traits will plummet. Parents will also be to more accurately analyze the pluses and minuses of multiple embryos and select the one that has the best combination of probabilities for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Called preimplantion genetic diagnosis (PGD), this technique is practiced to help couples identify embryos that might have high risks of major genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease. PGD remains expensive and inaccurate, but it will become a more attractive option as it improves.

In addition, ongoing improvements in computing power should help scientists better understand the complex interplay of genes. Determining the relationship of genetic makeup to traits like intelligence is a math problem that will probably never have an exact answer, but can be improved to provide more accurate probabilities.

CRISPR remains an experimental technique with many questions about the long-term safety of its editing process. Scientists and doctors fear that CRISPR may inadvertently impact non-target genes with unintended consequences. However, PGD carries no obvious downside because no modification of genetic matter occurs. Rather, the parents will be able to pick an embryo with a higher probability, based on the best research, of exhibiting desirable traits. This is less precise than CRISPR but could significantly increase chances of babies having desired traits.

This all raises complex ethical questions. To date, many national governments and states have banned gene editing of live human embryos. Governments have also banned genetic modifications of the human germline for imparting beneficial traits such as height or intelligence.

IVF combined with PGD, or well-tuned CRISPR interventions, could become a boutique treatment for wealthy folks seeking an edge for junior. This might further exacerbate already noted trends of rising assortative mating, in which people of like backgrounds and positions tend to marry each other. This concentrates wealth or other benefits further in a society, augmenting inequality.

Some argue that the government simply does not have the right to legislate how parents handle their children’s DNA. In this view, as long as these enhancements can be proven safe, then the government should not regulate them any more than it should regulate the ability of the wealthy to pay for expensive personal trainers to improve their physiques or expensive math tutors to help their children get into Ivy League schools.

But unlike personal trainers or math tutors, genetic modifications to embryos will provide benefits that are passed from generation to generation. Over time, allowing generation after generation to choose to improve their chances of endowing their offspring with valuable traits via either CRISPR or PGD could have a compounding impact of more inequality. Whether we as a society are ready to accept this scenario deserves an extended debate, given the high current level of global inequality.

While genetic manipulation to save lives makes perfect sense, the process shouldn’t be used to merely improve the chances of success of those already born with inherited socioeconomic advantages. Designer babies should only be available if they are available to everyone.

Alex Salkever is the co-author of The Driver In The Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Can Change the Future. You can follow him on Twitter. Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. He is a globally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and the co-author of The Driver in the Driverless Car.

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