The Current

Bioethicist warns against using gene-editing technology to solve social problems

Human genome editing could eliminate certain diseases and even turn your children into star athletes — but there are risks and a lot of unknowns about the fledgling technology. Françoise Baylis discusses ethics of CRISPR gene-editing, and why she thinks we must not use biotechnology to fix social problems.

Human genome editing could have unforeseen consequences, says Françoise Baylis

The gene-editing tool CRISPR allows scientists to remove or insert sequences into the genes of any living thing. (iStock/Getty Images)
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Bioethicist Françoise Baylis says that the evolving science of editing our genetics "isn't the answer" to overcoming social problems like racism.

"Imagine this scenario: a couple comes forward and they say, look, the world that I live in, unfortunately, has considerable discrimination," said Baylis, a member of the World Health Organization's expert committee on overseeing the development of human genome editing.

"What would we say if [the couple] said: 'I actually have figured out the best way to help my child is to make sure that they can't be the victim of that kind of discrimination, so I'm going to make sure that my child will have a different colour skin?'"

In her new book Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing, Baylis explores the impact that editing our genes could have on our evolution as a species.

Françoise Baylis is a bioethicist who serves on a World Health Organization committee that is developing standards for editing the human genome. (Graham Kennedy)

The gene editing technique CRISPR allows scientists to remove or insert sequences into the genes of living things, potentially curing hereditary diseases, or increasing certain abilities. These changes can be made in a way that they die with the subject, or in a way that is passed down to future generations. 

The technology is in its very early stages, and Baylis is concerned that not enough is known about the risks or long-term effects.

She acknowledged her theoretical couple is a "dramatic example."

But she told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch she wants people "to stop and think about what does it mean to identify a social problem, and then to think that it's reasonable to bring a biological solution to a social problem."

"I would like to think that we would step back and say: 'We have a real social problem, let's fix it,'" she said.

"Biology isn't the answer."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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