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Recoding Choice: How Germline Gene Editing Impacts Conceptions of Freedom

We don’t really have a choice but to assume everyone else has the freedom of choice. Our justice system, our statutes, and our American Dream largely tell of the person who chose to respect or break the social contract and to succeed or fail. But from time immemorial, nature and engineering have limited choice, and where they meet is often where choice ends. So, it comes as no surprise that the development of germline gene editing (GGE) strains the issue of individual choice almost beyond conception. Should we permanently program our descendant’s genes to be HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, or Huntington’s resistant? Should we become masters of evolution and liberate the human race from acute forms of suffering? Generations can answer ‘no’ until the end of time, but a ‘yes’ grants permanence.

To begin answering these questions, we must find a bridge between how we currently think to how GGE changes our thinking. For better or for worse, I believe we find that the bridge is currently one-way: GGE would simultaneously evolve our philosophy as it evolves our biology.

First, no invention has ever operated so far beyond the standard laws of nature and its expected God. Inventions like the printing press, automobile, and internet enhanced mankind’s capacity, but not man himself. Given that external enhancements are theoretically removable, previous generations still preserved the freedom to choose to use new advancements. Gene editing is a different game. By re-shaping and grafting the phylogenetic tree, we effectively assume that in our present culture, with our present knowledge, we can choose the biological future of our children’s children.

This assumption is not possible within our Western democratic framework. If choice continues to be an integral part of our nation’s DNA, we cannot recode our American framework. Germline gene editing is simply beyond the West’s philosophical threshold.

The tension is evident in the telling silence of mostly Western scientific communities. While a Chinese scientist revealed his GGE twin experiment and Russia moves to the next stages of GGE, the international community continues its call for moratoriums (and the committee representing the world are, by and large, from the West). It is true that time and deliberation are necessary, but the more they are petitioned, the more obvious it becomes that they are the only two things the West knows how to ask for. In fact, during the moratorium in 2015, the committee stated that societal views must first evolve before GGE’s questions could be answered. Allowing gene editing to drive the course of our philosophical evolution reveals the uncomfortable fact that the implications this technology cannot be conceptualized by a western framework. The technology itself must drive both biological and philosophical evolution. It is a one-way bridge.

The only way to fill in the missing pieces is to decide what kind of freedom matters most. By liberating humanity from inheritable forms of suffering, we allow future individuals to have all the choices imparted to a healthy life. At the same time, we could create Aldous Huxley’s dilemma in Brave New World where erased suffering robs the individual’s ability to choose beauty and meaning. The same is true if we accept both GGE’s health solutions and enhancements, although enhancements (and depending on the health policy, standard genetic medical treatment) could cause unprecedented socioeconomic divides. We could confine both medical treatments and enhancements to non-heritable traits, but this condemns people with germline transmitted maladies to seek treatment, if any exist that target only somatic cells, throughout theirs and their children’s lives while others enjoy health. The final option is, of course, to do nothing. While this frees us from responsibility, it enslaves us to stagnation haunted by the lives that could have been saved.

Either we preemptively choose one of these routes or the forces behind nature and engineering choose for us. We would, however, be naïve to think that pauses in our technological advancement preserves our control. Technology will keep moving, pulling our philosophical concepts along. So rather than fear or exalt what lies beyond the threshold of Western thought, we can inform our future by tracing the spectrum of suffering and its impacts on personal choice. Once established, the value of this choice can be weighed against the values of society. Then, without mutating the DNA of our values, we can choose the ethical path forward with GGE technology.