Legendary science fiction franchises envision future society-altering technologies and dystopias which often manifest into reality. The Austin Powers franchise is destined to replicate this prognosticative ability through its inclusion of the infamous character Mini-Me. His remarkable origin, as a villain’s modified miniature clone, inspired a popular culture reference: children that inherit a parent’s distinctive traits are referred to as a parent’s mini-me. CRISPR germline genome editing technology could enable parents to conceive an intentional mini-me with customized traits. CRISPR genome editing utilizes an enzyme derived from an anti-phage bacteria defense system analogous to the human immune system. In CRISPR technology, this enzyme creates predetermined incisions adjacent to certain nucleotides in a human genome. The segment of nucleotides between the incisions, which determines a human characteristic, is removed from a patient’s genome. A prepared segment replaces the prior segment and induces a variant characteristic (Doudna & Charpentier 1077).
Germline genome editing involves genome modifications that are inherited by offspring and successive generations; thus, a genetic lineage can be predetermined by one ancestral individual committing an individual action (Travis 1299–1300). For example, CRISPR germline genome editing technology grants individuals the capability to induce a particular eye color in themselves, which appears in offspring who did not choose to undergo this eye color modification. Fierce controversy concerning CRISPR germline genome editing ethicalness exists within an intersection of scientific and legislative domains. Perspectives opposed to germline genome editing are concerned with descendant health autonomy, which would be compromised by parents customizing the genetic traits that future offspring inherit. The Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine established a legal precedent on such controversy in 1997, as it asserts “an intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants,” (Rogers 1012). This legal assertion should serve as a precedent for legal decisions concerning CRISPR germline gene editing, as this technology compromises descendant autonomy in determining personal outlook in various health aspects, such as disease risks and physical build; although parental involvement in child development is imperative, predetermining inherited characteristics is a violation of descendant liberty to make health decisions in conjunction with evolution-favored, natural genetic chance.
Parental judgement is a fundamental parenting facet, as parents should make health decisions that restrict child autonomy dependent upon a child’s decision-making capacity; parental authority is imperative to ensure post-conception offspring health. Accepted legal precedents and statutes allow parents to influence offspring health to varied degrees throughout childhood. During infancy, a mother may decide whether her child will be breastfed or nourished with formula, as implicated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Kent 27). This decision has profound immediate and enduring health implications, such as reduced disease risks in breastfed children (Ip). During pregnancy, which is even earlier in child development yet still after conception, a mother’s autonomy extends further; in the United States, the Roe v. Wade precedent allows her to terminate the pregnancy on account of her own judgement (Abortion: Roe v. Wade). Parental involvement in child development is imperative and supported by various legal statutes. However, parental authority should not take precedence over offspring autonomy during decisions prior to conception. Parental authority post-conception evolved due to its advantageous impact on offspring survival rates. In fact, humans are considered a Type 1 survivorship species, which refers to species with the highest survival rates of young offspring in the animal kingdom; this type of survivorship is associated with the highest levels of parental care (Survivorship Curve). However, no biological precedent exists for parental authority prior to conception (Royle, et al.). New parents could make health decisions for potential future children without being influenced by evolved parental instincts that initiate upon conception. An individual may maintain idealized expectations for future offspring and enact authority over offspring autonomy by using CRISPR germline genome editing technology in order to induce a desired characteristic. This decision lacks consideration for a tangible human being, which is influenced by parental instincts.
Idealized expectations have a historical tendency to produce societal and population imbalances. According to renowned bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, germline genome editing has an amplified potential to produce irreversible imbalances due to a genetic characteristic’s heritable nature (Bosley, et al. 478–486). Many germline editing supporters advocate this technology as a mechanism to eradicate heritable genetic diseases from the human gene pool, which could eradicate pervasive and otherwise unavoidable health issues, such as Muscular Dystrophy, that can affect innocent children (Musculoskeletal Diseases). Although these intentions represent a benevolent application of parent authority taking precedence over offspring autonomy, devastating inadvertent consequences are an inevitable possibility. For example, individuals afflicted by sickle-cell disease are crippled with fatigue and have limited longevity. These symptoms are ascribable to a genetic variation that causes a deformity in red blood cells, which renders these cells unable to circulate sufficient oxygen. Thousands of people could be spared from this debilitating disease. Nonetheless, idealized germline genome modifications that eliminate the sickle-cell variation from the human gene pool would have catastrophic consequences, as a “diluted”, evolution-favored presence of sickle-cell disease genes in the human gene pool, referred to as heterozygote advantage, confers malaria resistance (Elguero, et al. 7051–7054).
“Perfecting” a human genome trends towards population homogeneity, which refers to minimal differences in a gene pool, and thus renders the human population less capable to adapt to ever-changing environmental factors (Bernatchez 2519–2556). An analogous loss of genetic diversity occurs during bottleneck incidences; 12,000 years ago, most individual cheetahs died as result of harsh environmental factors. Although the remaining cheetahs were the most fit for survival, their genomes were quite similar and not representative of genetic diversity in prior cheetah populations, which is considered a population bottleneck. Ever since, there have been multiple time periods during which the cheetah species struggled to adapt to environmental change (Genetic Diversity). Population homogeneity compromises descendant populations’ flexibility, and therefore autonomy to resolve inadvertent consequences and adapt. Judgements concerning which genetic characteristics will prove valuable for future generations are decided without consideration for descendant autonomy. The prospects of future human populations are predetermined without consent. Genetic variation in a human population should be preserved in order to prevent irreversible gene pool modifications.
Even if calculated and responsible germline genome modifications improve the immediate healthfulness of modified gene pool characteristics, disparate access to this expensive technology grants wealthy individuals an inequitable ability to modify their heritable gene pools, which forms the basis for various forms of social injustice (Gutmann & Moreno 171–176). Impoverished individuals would lack the financial assets necessary to modify their germline genomes and confer health advantages to themselves, as well as descendants. Overarching autonomy in human health is compromised: health-related genetic disadvantages would be limited to impoverished individuals, eliminating equalizing factors in human health across socioeconomic groups. Autonomous health decisions, such as the decision whether to smoke, allow one individual’s health to supersede another individual’s health, regardless of financial background (Smoking and Health). This autonomous impact is diminished once members of an elevated socioeconomic class apply advantageous modifications to produce a superior genome (Short, et al. S93–S101).
Perception of a superior genome is a fundamental basis for eugenics, which is defined as “the idea that the human race can be improved by careful selection of those who mate and produce offspring,” (The new dictionary of cultural literacy). In fact, during the early 20th century, the United States Supreme Court legalized the compulsory sterilization of disabled individuals, who were viewed as “inferior” people that should not be allowed to produce “inferior” children (Denhoed). Just as there was a societal desire to eliminate the presence of “inferior” individuals, renowned bioethicist Jonathan Moreno anticipates CRISPR germline genome editing technology to stimulate “consumer eugenics”, which is catalyzed by parental intentions to produce idealized offspring (Bosley, et al. 478–486). These sentiments would result in permanent polarized and segregated genomes amongst socioeconomic class, which produces a quantified, yet flawed basis for prejudice. This prejudice could motivate parents or popular law to justify practices or policies that infringe on the individual autonomy of offspring to interbreed amongst socioeconomic groups with distinct genomes.
CRISPR germline genome editing technology possesses the potential to revolutionize human health; the capability to preordain human lineages’ genetic destinies is an enticing proposition reminiscent of science fiction. However, society should extend its evaluation of this potential beyond the capacity to create idealized humans. CRISPR germline genome editing technology poses the risk of profound inadvertent autonomy-related consequences for future human descendants. Consequences include a violation of a descendant’s liberty to make their own health decisions in conjunction with evolution-favored genetic and parental tendencies, trend towards irreversible gene pool homogeneity and genetic inequity between socioeconomic classes.
Society should remember to evaluate the dystopian potential that underlies many science fiction technologies, as technological potential should not compromise individual autonomy and associated liberty. Any additional, responsible applications of CRISPR germline genome editing should be supervised by scientific professionals trained in how to avoid the irreversible consequences of germline editing. In order to preserve autonomy, society should restrict germline genome editing technology by instituting legislation inspired by legal precedents that advocate for individual autonomy. The legal precedent proposed by the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine is a sensible start. A mini-me to be proud of is a special occurrence in parenthood. It’s even more special when it occurs by chance.
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Leo Kharmats is a freshman Biology student at the University of Southern California. He is a loud Brooklynite whose allegedly thick accent is the source of incessant jokes by his peers. He is also enjoys watching losing sports teams, as he is a devoted Nets and Jets fan.