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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Gene editing is upon us, but how much power is too much?

Rika Kayama (Mainichi)

I recently gave a lecture at a graduate school of design on the theme, "Can you design a human being?" Genetic engineering is progressing at terrific speed, and in the future we may have the technology to choose or change a child's character and traits before they are born. If that is indeed the path we go down, then to what extent is it ethical for us to design a life not yet born? These are the kinds of questions I spoke on in my talk.

    "Let's say you analyze the DNA of a baby and discover that it has a high chance of getting cancer or some other serious illness later in life. Now, let's say that you had the ability to fix that problem when the baby was still just a fertilized egg. Would you do it?

    When I asked that question, most of the students replied that it would be better to edit the fertilized egg's DNA, with comments including, "If we could avoid the child getting sick in the future, then it would be the parents' responsibility to do it."

    Then I said, "Well let's take this one step further. What would you say to manipulating DNA to give a child athletic ability and double-fold eyelids?"

    Most of the students said that this was going too far. "To do that without even knowing if the child would want it is just motivated by the parents' ego," and "There's no guarantee that would make the child happy" were among the opinions expressed.

    However, is there really a decisive difference between these two scenarios? Are not both based on the desire to edit DNA to give the child a chance at a happier life? The more I debated the point with the students, the more uncertain I became.

    Some of the students said they didn't want to find out any genetic information at all, because knowing would create exactly this kind of problem. But then there are already companies offering to analyze your DNA, and it has been predicted that some years down the road it will be just as normal to know your own genetic information as it is to know your blood type now. We can already find out quite a lot about whether a fetus has a chromosomal anomaly just by testing the expecting mother's blood.

    From time to time, someone comes to my consultation room worried, confused and in pain because they have discovered some bad news about their own or their baby's genetic code. I believe that most people are not strong enough to simply accept the flood of information that can be learned from their DNA. If you were told you could see everything your genetic code said about your vulnerability to various diseases, your talents and your shortcomings, would you really want that? (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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