The gene editing tech is encountering the same obstacles as stem cell research did in the 90s, but on a whole new level.
It's hard to discuss CRISPR without discussing, even tangentially, the issue of abortion. The gene editing technology has now been applied to viable human embryos, opening up a door to editing genetic code in future humans. But there's an age-old debate, especially in the United States, over using embryos for scientific research, that has higher stakes than ever.
We don't have to look too far into the past to know how this might go. A decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, the US government had to grapple with two very different views of stem cell research. On one end, anti-abortion activists and establishment conservatives like then-advisor Karl Rove wanted to outlaw research on cells derived from human embryos. On the other, scientists and research groups said these cells could help develop cures for illnesses like spinal cord injuries or neurological disorders.
The end result was a compromise. The Bush administration allowed scientists to continue working on existing embryos that had been harvested, but wouldn't fund any research that required more embryos. He also signed an Executive Order saying they could not be used "for research purposes or destroying, discarding, or subjecting to harm a human embryo or fetus."
CRISPR takes this conversation to an unprecedented level. The technology could potentially be used for germline editing, which permanently alters genetic code as it is passed down from one generation to the next. It could be performed on gametes (individual sex cells), or on embryos. This has anti-abortion activists worried.
"As of right now, you have to have the embryo not in a uterus, where it naturally belongs. You put an embryo in a dish," said Rebecca Taylor, a clinical laboratory specialist and pro-life advocate in California. "That's not how human beings were meant to be treated in their earliest stages."
Taylor highlighted two concerns with applying CRISPR technology to human embryos. As a Catholic, she believes that the moment an egg is fertilized, the cluster of cells becomes a human being with a conscience. This means the editing is being done without a person's consent, because you can't really ask a growing embryo if it wants its genes tweaked.
She also echoes a widespread concern that CRISPR could be used for enhancements—changing genetic traits like height or strength. Shaping future generations with the limited knowledge we have at present moment, Taylor said, is "arrogant" and shortsighted.
Bioethicist Françoise Baylis said that anyone who has a moral opposition to conducting experiments on embryos will also have an issue with CRISPR research going forward. And she said it's unlikely that we'll find the same middle ground that Bush carved out during the stem cell decision, simply because the embryos used in that research no longer exist, meaning that more would have to be harvested.
But Baylis also pointed out that the conversation around abortion and its impact on scientific research is largely centered in the United States, where it is a perennial social issue that can threaten doctors who perform abortions. "It's the only country that I know that kills abortionists, the only country that meets this with violence," said Baylis, who's based at Dalhousie University in Canada.
As CRISPR research moves forward around the world, that could put the US in a tight spot. If China, for example, continues to experiment on human embryos while the US government refuses to fund similar research, American scientists will forced into the private sector if they want to compete. Once there, they could be beholden to corporate interests.
"From the scientists' community, there's this sense [of] being left behind," Baylis said. "There's a lot of scientists who see it as value neutral."
It's hard to tell what will happen with CRISPR if any decisions are made in the current political climate—the Trump administration has proposed large cuts to health and research agencies, and Trump has mentioned attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the legal basis for abortion. Vice President Mike Pence is also hard-line social conservative.
Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the new administration doesn't include the same social conservatives as the Bush era, despite the influence of Pence and others. But he said the conversation about permanently changing the human race will continue, just as it did in the 1960s.
"The philosophical differences have not changed at all," he said, citing Brave New World, published in 1931. "What will make it new is if you can really do something that's not only intellectually promising but make a huge difference with disease."
Moreno said the public's job is to elect government officials who they trust to regulate the science and make ethical decisions. Baylis, meanwhile, said the scientific community needs to join with the government and the public to create an entirely new framework for discussing CRISPR and gene editing.
"We've never had anything this big at stake. We're talking about the future of our species," she said. "We have the chance to start the process in a way that won't be polarized."
This is part of an ongoing column about gene editing and CRISPR technology called DNA IDK.