Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Gene editing is no longer science fiction

While everyone was focused on the border, some shocking news emerged from China. A scientist there laid claim to the first in utero genetically edited babies. If true, this is a huge breakthrough with gargantuan ramifications.

Over twenty years ago I envisioned a novel in which the doctor not only found the elusive gay gene (if there really is such a thing, but this is science fiction), he developed a technique to change it in utero. It was eventually published as a novel some twenty years later as The God Players. In the novel gay rights activists join forces with Christian fundamentalists to stop the procedure. The gay rights folks have an obvious aversion to it, and the fundamentalists are opposed to anyone playing God (thus the title).

From the Associated Press
There was nothing like this when I first conceived of the book. Now it appears to be reality. The upside is we may be able to cure horrible diseases like spina bifida before the child is ever born. The downside is the misuse of this technology to create super-humans. Hitler’s master race, if you will. The question is what should be done about it?

That’s something the characters in the book wrestle with. There’s no clear-cut answer. Imagine the genetic disorders that could be cured while the child is still developing in the womb. “Special needs” would essentially be a thing of the past. What a blessing to those afflicted with these diseases as well as their families. But how do you balance that with the temptation to create the perfect child?

One would think it would be a simple matter of limiting gene therapy to diseases. But what constitutes a disease? That’s the dilemma faced in The God Players. Is homosexuality a disease? Lawyers for the scientist argue that it is. They argue that anything that veers too far from nature can be considered a disease. They argue that sex, at its basic level, is for procreation, thus arguing that anything that runs counter to that can be considered a disease.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that homosexuality is intertwined with a person’s personality. They argue that some of our greatest art and literature may not have happened had the scientist been there to change the genetic makeup of people like Michelangelo or Oscar Wilde or Tchaikovsky.

It’s an interesting argument and makes for an intriguing courtroom battle, but the day of reckoning is here. This is no longer a thrilling plot line for a novel. It’s real, and we have to deal with it. What are we going to do?

We can begin by limiting gene therapy to diseases, but inevitably altering the genes of a homosexual baby will be just the first argument. How about a baby prone to be short. How about one who’s redheaded? Or left-handed? Nothing against you short left-handed redheads, but you’ve heard the arguments that tall, blond, and right-handed is more desirable. I’m not making that argument here. I’m just pointing out all sorts of normal traits that could be changed by people who find them less than desirable. Then where does that leave us?

How about this one? Suppose someone claims it’s a disadvantage to be born black and science can fix that? Scary, isn’t it? 

This problem isn’t going away. With the reported advancement in China it’s only going to accelerate. Even if we as a society decide its not a road we want to go down, what about another Hitler taking control of this technology? Hmmm. I may have just stumbled upon my next novel.

Phil Valentine is the host of the award-winning, nationally syndicated talk radio show, 
The Phil Valentine Show.


  1. Limiting gene therapy to diseases? Why? And who would decide? Many scientific decisions have been made not by the scientists but by the laymen lawmakers frequently on the basis of their personal religious beliefs. Most of those ill-conceived decisions have delayed the advances in science, a historically predictable phenomenon. If not for many brave scientists we would still believe that any conceivable illness or natural disaster are God's punishment for our sins, we would never question a geocentric universe or burning bushes . Science is advanced by the scientists , not by the lawmakers. It is, and always will be, a decision of the scientists which way to go, what to explore and what to ignore, regardless of the imposed, restrictive regulations . Any legislative attempts to prevent, delay, or to forbid scientific curiosity have been, and will remain, a failure of imagination as history shows us very clearly. It would be very naive to believe that scientific work can be successfully legislated. Scientist around the world do, and will, pursue their theories even if it means to do it not in the open.
    There is no question that it is the responsibility of every scientists to conduct their research work in the most ethical manner in order to benefit and serve humanity. Their scientific freedom, however, can not be impeded by the arbitrary laws or religious beliefs. After all, it is much less likely to find a rogue scientist than a rouge attorney or politician and the contribution of science and scientists to humanity is incomparable to any other human activities.

  2. Sorry Doc, you are giving scientists far more credit than they deserve. If every scientist was so altruistic there would be no fake science on global warming. I cite the "hockey stick" hokum as only one example of personal aggrandizement and altering research for more government research dollars, overcoming real science. I fear we will have no say in this research and maybe we should not, but man will create his own destruction if left to his own devices. Only a truly moral foundation for scientific research could control this, but since that is pretty much non-existent in our universities, it is anyone's guess.