The most important news of the week was buried underneath an avalanche of dispatches involving palace intrigue in the White House and the Republican Party’s effort to deconstruct the Affordable Care Act. A team of scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University had, according to the MIT Technology Review, used a relatively new gene-editing technique to alter the DNA of a single-cell human embryo.
“Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans,” the report read. This represents the first known (emphasis on known) effort to genetically modify a human embryo, and it won’t be the last.
The speed with which this scientific milestone was reached has outpaced society’s ability to process it. Already, the outlines of a conflict over the nature of this practice—its ethicality, its utility, and its displacing effects on the American workforce—are visible, but no one seems prepared to talk about them. What was once science fiction is perfectly thinkable today. It’s time to do some thinking.
First, it is incumbent upon Americans of all political stripes—not just conservatives or the faithful—to consider the moral implications of embryonic genetic engineering. In April of 2015, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a statement pledging that “NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos,” but this prohibition does not apply to private endeavors. Public ethos guides private industry, but what is public philosophy regarding the interference with genetic destiny?
Are we obliged to eradicate genetic disorders? Is it unethical not to intervene in the development of an embryo if we have the capacity to alleviate future suffering and hardship? Is it morally questionable to select for various cosmetic traits that prospective parents might find desirable? Do we engage in this process of upending the natural order without knowing the long-term effects of genetic manipulation? Is a modified population a form of eugenics?
This leads us to ponder the public-policy implications of a world in which genetic modification is a fact of life. NIH guidelines will constrain some in the United States from overreaching, but every nation will have its own standards, and genetic medical tourism is undoubtedly the industry of the future. Should Congress seek to limit or even prohibit the practice of elective embryonic genetic engineering? Is such a notion constitutional, to say nothing of economically and socially advantageous?
The American right is guaranteed to be suspicious of an activity that intervenes in the spheres of natural life previously exclusive to the divine. “I don’t trust ‘the scientists’ to regulate themselves,” wrote National Review’s Wesley Smith. “Mr. President: We need a presidential bioethics/biotechnology commission now!” A commission is fine, but one with an eye toward restricting technological advance is swimming against the tide. Scientific achievement cannot be prevented—Pandora’s Box cannot be un-opened, and it is far better that the person doing the opening is someone subject to laws and mores than someone beyond those constraints. Smith’s fear is, however, valid. It’s reminiscent of the way in which automation crashed over the American economy like a tsunami.
Simple robots have been stealing away from Americans the ability to be paid for the completion of rote tasks for over a generation, but it was the onset of artificial intelligence that truly upended the economy. Only in the last few years were occupations previously thought immune to the effects of technology imperiled; office administration, sales and service jobs, and transportation may all headed for the chopping block. In February of 2016, Citibank in coordination with the University of Oxford predicted that automation will threaten 47 percent of existing U.S. jobs.
The effect of this radically disruptive technological revolution on American politics is only just beginning to be felt. What seemed like science fiction only a few years ago—for example, increasingly ubiquitous self-piloted commercial and military vehicles and self-service kiosks at food and retail outlets—are a reality today. And they will create an army of otherwise unemployable low-skilled workers who demand some legislative remedy for their condition. Is the prospect of a stratified, dystopian society envisioned in films like “Gattaca” so hard to envision? If not, how can it be prevented before those class structures become intractable? Is genetic modification at birth a privilege reserved for the nation’s wealthiest, or should all Americans have access to a potentially life-saving therapy?
These all seem like far-fetched questions today, but they might be standard in only five or ten years. Society’s capacity to cope with technological advance is not infrequently outpaced by the speed of those advances, and genetic modification will surely not buck that trend. It is, however, incumbent upon us to think about the consequences of that civilization-shaping breakthrough; what could go wrong, how it will benefit mankind, and how best to guide its development. The American right has as many modern Ned Ludds as do their progressive counterparts. There will be those who rage against technological advance as though it could be stopped, but it cannot. Therefore, it’s time to ask a number of uncomfortable questions. They’ll be answered one way or another, with us or without.