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Editorial Policy: The Ethics of Gene Editing

85 years ago, British novelist Aldous Huxley imagined a Brave New World where machinery would churn out babies who would be mass produced (i.e. cloned) and conditioned throughout their childhoods using chemicals and sleep learning techniques. Conformity, happiness, and conspicuous consumption would be the desired effects, and a balanced, Utopian society would be the ultimate goal.

Journalists in search of a catchphrase tend to reference Huxley whenever they report on the latest bioethical controversy. Needless to say, you’re likely to hear the title of his seminal work bandied about in the coming weeks and months. That’s because in early August, a team of researchers at Oregon Health and Science University announced they used gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to remove a dangerous mutation from a human embryo by altering its DNA.

A day after news of the breakthrough made headlines, an American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) workgroup published a statement in The American Journal of Human Genetics addressing the issue. In it they expressed no objection to the research conducted by the scientists at Oregon Health Science University but cautioned against germline gene editing, which culminates in pregnancy. They also stated that in the future, clinical applications of human germline genome editing like those performed on the embryos in the recent study should only go forward after a public review process and a proven need is determined.

Being able to ‘correct the spelling’ of the embryos’ DNA may have some members of the media and the public worried about a future where wealthy parents-to-be can pay for ‘designer babies.’ Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center (NYULMC) says they’re overreacting. “If you would compare this to a trip to Mars, you’re basically launching some satellites,” Caplan says. Preventing illness is not the same as curing illnesses or creating humans with enhanced attributes like intelligence or athletic ability.