A Guide to a Gene-Editing Philosophy

Nathan Stacy, M2, Class of 2022

Super Humans. Eradication of genetic diseases. Rich people boosting their kids’ traits, poor people left in the dust. Playing God.

These themes are hashed and rehashed in the great gene editing debate. And they all must be taken into account in what I will attempt to do next, which is to lay out a (beginners version of) a moral framework in which to understand and judge gene editing.

My thesis is this:

  Biological actions taken to restore human abilities are just and good, and                     biological actions taken to augment human abilities are unjust and bad.

This framework fits into what we naturally feel about a lot of different areas. For example, how do you (or the general public) feel about the following situations:

  • Steroids taken by baseball players
  • Blood transfusions for cyclists
  • Taking Adderall to improve concentration for a test (without medical necessity)

These are all examples of augmenting human abilities. We naturally feel that they are immoral and unjust.

Now consider these examples:

  • Steroids for patients suffering from autoimmune flares
  • Blood transfusions for patients who are bleeding out
  • Taking Adderall when an individual has ADHD

These are all examples of restoring human abilities. You’d have to travel far and wide to find people who believe that these actions are immoral and unjust.

We can apply this framework to gene editing.

Let’s take a look at cystic fibrosis. Cystic Fibrosis is a debilitating, lifelong disease that people are born with. Many of us have a gut feeling that it must be just and good to use gene editing to cure this disease in utero. The good news: under this framework, we can! For we wish to restore, not augment, the natural abilities of humans with cystic fibrosis.

Now let’s look at super humans. Some people may wish to gene edit their kids so they run faster, jump higher, or will be more intelligent than they otherwise would be, even if they were perfectly healthy. Many of us have a slight sinking feeling in our gut when we think through the consequences of playing God in this fashion. The good news: under this framework, we cannot gene edit kids in this way, for it would augment, not restore the natural abilities of human beings.

My thesis is far from fully fledged. But it has helped me think about these issues in a more grounded way. And I hope it will help you as well.

If you have any thoughts or critiques about my thesis, feel free to reach out to me or to write a follow up or counter argument in the next edition of KU’s Med Intima.

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