What is CRISPR?
CRISPR (pronounced crisper) is a new method of gene editing whereby genomes of living organisms can be edited. It is a simple but powerful tool which enables researchers to quickly, inexpensively, and accurately alter DNA sequences and make modifications to existing gene functions. With such a groundbreaking tool at our disposal, it really is hard to overstate just how important CRISPR is to our future. By making effective use of its potential, we can radically alter our society for the betterment of all people by correcting genetic defects, treating, preventing, and even outright curing diseases and improving crops and fauna to provide us with more food and materials. However, with such awesome power comes a few delicate ethical dilemmas that we must sort out if we wish to effectively and carefully make use of this new technology.
Why is CRISPR risky?
As we alluded to, CRISPR is a new technology and if we do not proceed with caution, we might end up with more consequences than we bargained for. The fact of the matter is that efficient and highly selective gene editing is now a reality. We can breakdown an individual organism’s genetic makeup and pick and choose what modifications we wish to make, gene by gene. This type of technology was previously seen as something straight out of a futuristic sci-fi movie, but that is just not the case anymore. As soon as the immense potential of CRISPR was understood, concerns were immediately raised surrounding the ethics of editing the genes of other organisms as well as genuine cause for worry if any unintended consequences should occur as a result.
Namely, many scientists fear that germline editing brings with it the possibility of unintended consequences for not just the subjects of the editing, but also their offspring and any future generations thereafter. Germline gene editing is an important distinction because it entails editing the genes of reproductive cells, thus giving the organism the ability to pass on its newly modified genes down to successive generations. However, even if germline editing proves to not be particularly problematic, there are still even more moral and, perhaps even legal, questions worth considering. For instance, should we make changes that can fundamentally affect future generations of sentient beings, without their knowledge or consent? Are we entitled to make such modifications without fully understanding the depth of the consequences that we may face later? What should we do if germline editing becomes so commonplace that is ceases to be a therapeutic tool or a means of treatment and instead becomes a way of enhancing certain human characteristics which are seen as ‘desirable’? These are all genuine questions which have no immediately satisfactory answer, because they involve delving deeper into our own ideas and perceptions of what is right and wrong
What does CRISPR have to do with law?
Where ethics can be subjective, legality is not. In this sense, we can look at the potential legal ramifications CRISPR may face if things go wrong. Looking at the first question we posed, the question of consensuality is huge in the legal realm. As far as the law is concerned, it is generally always unlawful to make decisions which affect someone else’s life so long as it affects them in a serious, unchangeable way. The key component here though is that this technology may be used to bring about unintended negative changes to future generations. To illustrate this more concretely, consider a patient named Margaret. Let us assume Margaret had some genetic disorder, which a group of scientists were studying. They figured out a way to fix the issue by using CRISPR to edit out Margaret’s defective sequence of genes which cause the disorder. Margaret then undergoes the procedure and, to the credit of the scientists, her condition is cured. However, she may experience other unforeseen problems later in life as a result of the tinkering with her genetic material using CRISPR. Let us assume one of the problems she experiences is inherited by her son, Larry.
If we take stock of the situation, we can see that her disorder was cured but another unforeseen problem afflicted Margaret and, even worse, went on to affect her newly born child. Therefore, what actually happened was one problem was exchanged for another, and since this problem is also hereditary, the scientists effectively introduced a genetic condition into the human populace. However, the connection between any given new health problem and the genetic modifications made using CRISPR may take awhile to establish and thus the necessary counter-measures may not be implemented in a timely manner. Exactly how costly these blunders will be remains to be seen, but we can safely assume that the affected parties will not be happy and, as such, they may wish to take legal action.
Clearly, the potential for using CRISPR in a beneficial and positive way is definitely there, but so is the possibility of many mistakes which can have huge impacts on the lives of many people. What is most frightening about some of the negative situations we may find ourselves in as a result of gene editing through CRISPR, is that it is almost impossible to say what exactly those negatives may be. We simply do not understand enough about genes, gene mapping, and their interactions with one another to definitively say what could occur as a result of tampering with our genes. Therefore, without any guarantees of safety, the likelihood of legal action being taken against researchers and scientists is quite high. This may actually end up discouraging further studies of CRISPR, however completely abandoning it is highly unlikely.
What really needs to change is how we approach gene editing to avoid jumping to conclusions too early and leading to unintended, but disastrous consequences. While it is incredibly exciting to finally have access to a technology as profound as CRISPR, we still need to wait a little longer to do more research and testing before larger scale gene edits can be safely conducted on humans, and certainly on germline cells.