Where do you draw the line?
“With great power, comes great responsibility.” That’s Peter Parker’s motto, or Spiderman, after being bitten by a radioactive spider, which most likely injects him with a particularly efficient form of CRISPR Cas9. Fictional of course, but it appeals to the imagination of many children (and adults) that you suddenly change your characteristics and transform from a weak shy nerd into a strong agile hero who saves the world. It remains fiction that anyone can become Spiderman or Captain America for the time being, but if science continues to develop, we will get such precise control over the genetic code that we have to think about it.
Genetic modification, that is what we are talking about tonight and during this festival. It brings a lot of promises; growing crops in poorer conditions so that millions of people have easier access to food, the solution for incurable diseases, and bacteria that remove CO2 from the air! These are all fantastic prospects! I say, let’s go bananas! One of the reasons that I am optimistic is because I have worked with genetically modified cells. They do not bite, they behave nicely and are not as scary as you might expect. Admittedly, there are strict rules regarding the safety of GMOs. And that is how it should be. These regulations enable us to do fundamental and applied research that is improving millions of lives. Gene editing does so much good because we handle it responsibly. In order to continue that, we must all determine what responsibility is in this context.
Wait for a second, not so fast! Promises must be kept and it is not all rosy. What if something goes wrong? What if human traits become tradable products? Have you ever thought about that, Bas? Certainly yes … quite a while. Because I fully understand that genetic modification has a scary, nasty side. A part of it is in comprehension, but that is not all. Tinkering with humans or with our food. The idea that we should not determine which genes are passed on or that we can not change genes without the permission of future generations. That has been done before, which led to a jet black page in the book of humanity and science.
That is why it is crucial that we discuss it with each other tonight and in the future to determine what we do and do not approve of. That we are aware of the dangers that GMO’s entail and at the same time ensure that the great possibilities are realized, without experiencing the negative consequences. That we have an agreement and take away each other’s worries. Because genetic modification is not a technology that is inherently good or bad, but a tool that can be used for both. Let’s make sure it is used to do well.
That is why I am asking you this evening: where do you draw the line? What should we want and do not want as a society? To prohibit everything because humans are not allowed to play for God? Or because future generations cannot give permission? Do we have an obligation to future Huntington’s patients to heal them before they get sick? Or is gene editing the next step in human evolution and do we have to embrace this in all facets?
I draw the line at curing incurable, hereditary, deadly diseases. In addition, such a major intervention is justified by the particularly great suffering experienced by patients. Monogenetic diseases are the first to be considered, assuming that the choice will always lie with the parents. Because I do not pretend to have the wisdom to tell someone what choice they should make when they are told that their future child has Tay-Sachs disease and will never reach the age of eighteen. The parents must have the opportunity to have a healthy child. But if we are talking about chronic conditions such as blindness from dwarfism, I would make a different consideration, partly because of the implications of ‘healing’.
I know where I draw the line. Do you? I am not saying that it is easy, or that it is immediately clear, but I am saying that it is essential that you know that about yourself. Because if we obtain this powerful technology as a society, we also have a major responsibility to deal with it properly.
Text: Bas Tuenter
Photo: Almicheal Fraay