‘Genome editing is editing society’
Technology got us to the point where, based on our behaviour, we can predict that in just a few decades our planet will face an environmental crisis. Nowadays it is not unusual to grow crops on a large scale in areas where life cannot usually be sustained. We improved most of the contingencies that surround us in order to make life better.
But what about our own improvement, what about the influence of technology in genetic modification? Can we use it regardless of the ethical implications, or does our philosophy hinder the advancement in this field? The aim of this article is to raise a moral quandary by turning the spotlight on the libertarian view on whether we should or should not use technologies like CRISPR and cas-9 to interfere with how the nature designs us.
In November of 2018, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, claimed to have edited the genes of two twin girls’ embryos, making them HIV resistant. He did this by altering the CCR5 gene which is essential for many (though not all) variants of HIV to infect their hosts (Zimmer, 2018). This was possible thanks to CRISPR – cas9 technique, a genetic editing tool that removes fragments of DNA (Simsek, 2018). While the girls’ father was HIV-positive, they ran a low risk of infection given that artificial insemination had been used and the sperm had been ‘cleansed of the virus’.
The procedure, then, did not tend to an urgent medical need. Within the scientific community, there was a general outcry against the procedure having been performed. The foremost concerns were the unintended consequences the procedure might have in the long term, given that the specific alterations were clinically untested. The aimed-for benefits of the procedure were reportedly minor, and easy to achieve with alternative means like drugs (Klein & Le Page, 2018; Yong, 2018).
The international consensus is that gene manipulation is a sensible field and countries should cooperate when engaging in this matter. Even so, while the United States and many other countries have made it illegal to deliberately alter the genes of human embryos, it is not against the law to do so in China. The practice is, however, still opposed by many researchers there.
According to the state-run Beijing News, The Southern University of Science and Technology, which Dr. He is attached to, states that he has been on no-pay leave since February and that the school of biology believed that his project ’is a serious violation of academic ethics and academic norms’. Moreover, on December the 3rd, 2018, He Jiankui was reported missing (Haynes, 2018).
Among all the controversy, an ethical dilemma looms over the topic: to what extent should we interfere with nature’s work regarding the human development? Is it ethical to play God? This is the debate that the present article is proposing.
2. Libertarianism. Explaining the theory
Championing personal (bodily) autonomy and freedom, the choice of libertarianism represents the acknowledgment that it is one of the few theories that allows us to express a contemporary vision regarding the human body. It makes its case in topics like abortion, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality or assisted suicide.
Libertarianism is a political theory predicated on the ideas of self-ownership and individual liberty and autonomy. A guiding principle in libertarianism is the harm principle. First explained by John Stuart Mill (though he himself was a utilitarian) in 1858 in his work ‘On Liberty’, he states that power can only be rightfully exercised over any person against their will in order to prevent harm to others. People are entitled to the fruits of their labour and freedom in their own conduct, so long as said conduct does not infringe upon the freedom or rights of others. It holds that the state and in general those who hold power have no moral authority to coerce people into acting out what is (by others) conceived to be their self-interest. Leading the laissez-faire camp are free-market libertarians who believe that justice consists in respecting and upholding the voluntary choices made by consenting adults (Sandel, 2009).
In libertarian theory, the basic (ideal) structure of society follows from and is justified by these core ideas in the form of free markets, property rights, free exchange, a minimal state, and formalised rights (Perry, 1997; Zwolinski, 2016).
Insofar as these ideas concern the rights of parents to their offspring, most libertarians hold that the principles of their ideology do not infringe upon the generally held idea that parents have the authority in relation to their children to decide for them even over their (potential) objections (Lipson &Vallentyne, 1991).
3. The libertarian view on the issue
As a society, ideally, we aim to preserve our species, and, if possible, to evolve. But can this be done without considering the ethical implications?
The academic ethical debate is lively and diverse. On one hand, libertarians argue that we should be able to choose freely if, how, and when to intervene in our genes. Any restrictions would infringe our freedom of choice and would therefore be unethical. Bailey argues, for instance, that the individual, not a legislative or regulatory body, is best positioned to judge what behaviours and alterations are appropriate regarding themselves (Bailey, 2005).
Libertarian philosophy, in fact, as mentioned supra, sees the harm principle as the only acceptable rationale in limiting the liberty of other rational human beings. In other words, libertarians accept laws and policies that are in place to prevent individuals from harming others. At the same time, and consequently, they reject measures that seek to prevent self-harm and ‘victimless’ crimes (Borenstein, 2009). Persson and Savulescu (as cited by Giubilini & Sanyal, 2015) stipulate that moral enhancement is morally obligatory, at least if we want to protect the human species from behaviours such as terrorist attacks or depletion of natural resources, that put at risk its very existence. Others go even further. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick proposed a ‘genetic supermarket’ that would enable parents to order children by design without imposing a single way on the society as a whole (Nozick, 1984).
In respect to John Rawls, one of the leading philosophers of American liberalism (though not a libertarian himself), one can argue that in his classic, On Liberty (2011), he offered a brief endorsement of non-coercive eugenics. Even in a society that agrees to share the benefits and burdens of the genetic lottery, it is ‘in the interest of each other to have greater natural assets’, Rawls wrote. ‘This enables him to pursue a preferred plan of life.’ The parties to the social contract ‘want to ensure the best genetic endowment for their descendants (assuming their own to be fixed).’ Eugenic policies are therefore not only permissible but required as a matter of justice. ‘Thus, over time a society is to take steps at least to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects.’
Non-libertarian philosophers, instead, seem to be taking the opposing side in this debate. Some strongly warn of the catastrophic effects that the usage of this technology on a large scale could have. Michael Sandel, for instance, claims that the problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent the one-sided triumph of wilfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of moulding over beholding. Sandel also argues that the problem is not that parents usurp the autonomy of a child they design, but that the problem lies in the hubris of the designing parents, in their drive to master the mystery of birth. Even if this disposition did not make parents tyrants to their children, it would disfigure the relation between parent and child, and deprive the parent of the humility and enlarged human sympathies that openness to the unbidden can cultivate (Sandel, 2004). It threatens our appreciation of life as a gift, and might leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will. All in all, for Sandel, one of the restraints of this drive is an appreciation for features that are seen as gifts to be cherished as they are.
Undoubtedly, things are not plain and simple. Both parties have strong arguments, but evolution is inevitable. Since there is a sense that we have reached our biological limits, many aim to evolve through technology, and thus we must be careful which path we choose.
These technological advances are impossible to prevent. It is necessary to have an ex ante dialogue between the different facets of society in order to regulate and control the development of this type of technology. The debate will allow society and science to come up with a conclusion on how to approach these new technologies, within the pre-imposed ethical limits.
Although we are getting more and more knowledge about this technology, it is still almost a terra incognita. This makes it very complicated and difficult to identify the consequences in the short and long term, and to be able to know what we can cut or amend in our DNA. Many questions still arise regarding this topic. There still is a long way to go in relation to this issue and much research is yet to be elaborated and carried out before this technology can be taken lightly. It is up to society as a whole to address the issue and resolve it within the ethical framework.
To conclude, I think this issue carries too much importance to be left in the hands of the individuals and that is why a pure libertarian approach should not be seen as a viable solution. Among all these uncertainties, one thing is clear: we are challenging the laws of nature and we need to decide the path that we are going to walk on. It is wiser to walk on a paved road than through a jungle, and therefore a regulation can be the road we need. An enforced regulation, in which law-makers, scientists and philosophers come together and have their own say, might be a solution. Law has to get rid of its bad habit of always being one step behind the social reality and try to discreetly anticipate unpleasant outcomes, and, more importantly, keep a balance between individual freedom and the urge to control.
By Răzvan-Alexandru Mărginean
This article was originally published in issue 6.2 of the magazine, which can be accessed here. All references used can be found at the end of that issue.