The Northwestern University Political Union gathered Monday night to debate the ethics of genetic engineering. The discussion spanned many different types of gene therapy, including everything from CRISPR technologies to in vitro fertilization to selective breeding. The term “genetic engineering,” however, was generally understood to mean direct scientific tampering or manipulation of a person’s genetic material.
Lucy Yuan argued in favor of the resolution under discussion, which called genetic engineering unethical. “Even though genetic engineering has many benefits… it can also be used to exploit class differences,” she explained in her opening statement.
Yuan also cast doubt on the medical upsides of gene therapy, calling the existing treatments imprecise. The successful editing of non-viable embryos, she posited, does not necessarily transfer over to viable embryos. “Societally, the risk of misuse is huge,” Yuan warned.
Arguing against the resolution, James Skala explained how, by intentionally breeding particular wolves and cultivating certain grasses, ancient people created dogs and corn. “We human beings have been genetically modifying organisms for years,” Skala told those gathered. He went on to describe how genetic engineering has fortified our food supply against a growing population and how it could similarly be used on human beings to raise the average height and IQ score as well as protect against inheritable diseases. “There are definitely challenges, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.”
As the floor was opened to questions and comments, many participants expressed their concerns about genetic engineering being used for a population-wide eugenics movement. The technology, which could be used in the womb to eliminate certain disabilities and diseases, could have the effect of further marginalizing existing disabled communities.
For instance, one person compared these kinds of genetic alterations to cochlear implants for those with hearing impairments, which are widely disliked among the deaf community. With widespread alterations of genetic material, the community could be at risk of dissolving altogether.
“Everyone agrees there is a line to be drawn. The question is, where is that line?” asked Omkar Venkatesh. Gene editing is a slippery slope, and it isn’t immediately clear where the medical benefits end and the more nefarious possibilities begin. The question is further complicated by the current lack of oversight.
While some professed their belief that effective regulation would evolve and adapt as the technology emerged, much like it has for other developing fields such as financial markets and social media, others remained skeptical that the framework could be developed in time or enforced effectively.
The concept of agency was also debated at length — are parents depriving their unborn child of a valuable choice by making genetic alterations without consent? Some considered the practice to be intrusive on moral grounds as if the parents were effectively “playing God.” Others argued that the unborn child could not be deprived of agency if it had no decision-making capabilities to begin with. On the subject of intrusion and scientific overreach, one person commented, “I’m curious what parts of medicine don’t constitute ‘playing God.’”
The discussion often strayed into the area of popular culture, as people referenced dystopian works such as Gattaca, Jurassic World and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Although all fictional, these stories illustrate some of the various potential misuses of genetic engineering: eugenics, profiteering and overspecialization, respectively. In his closing statement, Skala pushed back by describing how Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds made people fear space exploration, and how The Terminator made people fear artificial intelligence. These films “really only served to give people misconceptions about what these technologies are going to do,” he said.
Yuan concluded with a warning about how abusers of this technology could potentially make irreversible changes to the population. “It would increase discrimination. It would increase class inequality, and it would reduce genetic diversity,” she summarized.
Before opening statements, a majority of those present abstained from voting for or against the resolution. After the debate ended, a plurality voted in favor of classifying genetic engineering as unethical.
This debate is the first in a series hosted by the Northwestern University Political Union focusing on emerging technologies and related policy decisions. They will be hosting a panel of experts on Thursday, May 9, to discuss the ethics and regulations of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and facial recognition technologies. For more information, you can visit their Facebook page.