To Those in the Labs and Those Who Aren’t,
Whew, it’s a heavy topic. After days of procrastination, I now wonder why I didn’t write about something simple, like “the surrogacy diet.” It’s too late for that because Leigh (our graphic designer) already made the art you’re seeing to the side. So on we go.
Four years ago, my beautiful little sister C was born via IVF, and 20 years ago, my partner (the aforementioned Leigh) was also a little “test-tube baby.” Some of the most important people in my life have been impacted or are here because of the working of IVF. I can’t ignore that.
So, I’ll start by acknowledging my bias both as someone having been impacted by the positives via my loved ones and as someone working in the 3rd-party reproductive sphere. Let’s be honest, I can be an opinionated asshole, but I also like eating, so I have a level of bias towards most anything in the realm of IVF.
I also want to point out that there are no answering of moral and philosophical quandaries in this letter, nor attempts to do so, and I will not be addressing any religious arguments or viewpoints. This is just a look at two sides of an intense debate, with an injection of personal opinion that should be taken with a grain of salt.
Why even bother reading it you ask?
I’d like to think there is value in the writing (and also blogs count for hours). Let’s start with a few simplified definitions you’ll need to know.
CRISPR is a tool that can edit genome sequences. With CRISPR, the altering of DNA sequences can correct genetic defects, improve crop resilience, and cease the spread of diseases. It is quite controversial for reasons we will soon discuss.
IVF is a type of fertilization that revolves around an embryo being created outside of a body and then implanted into a carrier. IVF has also faced controversy, largely from a religious perspective. CRISPR and IVF share very little in common but are consistently grouped when they are criticized. Combining different sciences is foolish, yet a significant portion of documentation criticizing either feels the need to mention the other. I am here to explain the larger viewpoints of a broad “pro science of genome/chromosome/embryo altering” and its detractors- not specifically CRISPR or IVF. On top of all this, modern IVF often comes hand in hand with PGS and/or PGD, which are tests that detect issues with chromosomes, to ensure that embryos are free of down syndrome (among many other things).
Whilst analyzing embryos for C, my little sister, I recall that a startling number of them had deformities that would have led to down syndrome. We were able to use PGS and PGD to ensure the picking of a healthy embryo, while also giving my Mother (of 3 boys) the chance to pick the biological sex of her baby-to-be. This is incredible, to say the least. To live in such a world where we can ensure babies are free of conditions that could kill/drastically alter their lives sounds like an absolute privilege.
Toss moral absolutism aside and let’s talk about the pro-genome editing points. If a few snips here, and genome changes there could ensure that cystic fibrosis was eradicated, why wouldn’t we partake? We could save lives on a genetic level, Black women are at a disproportionately higher risk of catching HIV, and make up 60% of the female HIV-positive population despite making up only 15 percent of women. If we could harness the powers of CRISPR and PGS, we could eradicate HIV’s spread at a genetic level. Wouldn’t that not only make sense but be the morally responsible thing to do to help us reach medical equality?
Half of the world’s HIV-positive population lives in Africa- if we could roll out genome editing there, we could attack this at the source and fundamentally change a blight that affects an entire continent en masse. In this way, science could be harnessed to level the playing field. Regulation coupled with scientific progress could change the world. If we ensure that the process existed to create babies that are healthy, with fast metabolisms and hearty bones, and resistance to deadly diseases, (as opposed to using them to further white nationalism) then we as a society would be far better off. Modern problems require modern solutions, and in a world where a significant portion of humans sit at a desk for hours at a time, instead of building houses and hunting for food, utilizing every tool we can to strengthen our bodies, halt obesity, and prioritize longevity for all people seems like an easy decision. Think of all of the possible scientific applications. Even if we aren’t quite there yet, why wouldn’t we do everything we could to strengthen the gene pool of humankind?
Now let’s look at a more negative perspective.
When I was in the 8th grade, we had an end-of-year exam handed out by the state of Texas- that contained reading on a certain corporation that shall not be named, and how their genetic altering of foods would cure world hunger. Can’t grow crops in Sub-Saharan Africa? Don’t worry! We can grow corn in labs now!
That was 7 years ago, and as world hunger rates continue to rise, I think back to those articles, and wonder why we haven’t solved that, disturbingly large inequality.
Sure, 7 years isn’t too long, but I’d hope for at least some change when the GMO industry is worth 18 billion dollars. Tesla is worth 5.52 billion and look how much we have to hear about them. That’s the thing. Eating food is kinda… fundamental — and, if first-world countries haven’t stepped up to fix world hunger, why in the hell would they create the means for widespread CRISPR?
Because Corporate greed will always prevail. (duh)
161 billion dollars of food is wasted per year, and “providing the additional calories needed by the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply.”
It seems the issue doesn’t come down to food production at all, but to the fact that large corporations (like world powers) don’t make money off of actually helping. This isn’t a (bloated and unwieldy) blog post about GMOs, it’s about genome editing- but the point stands. We can pretend that the world is a beautiful place full of rainbows and twinkles, and that CRISPR and genome editing will save the world, but a much more realistic outcome of unfettered support placed in genome editing would be the same as it is with anything else. The wealthy patrons of the first world will be able to enjoy the splendors of cutting-edge science, while the table scraps of development will occasionally trickle down to the middle class, or any poor person whose GoFundMe was lucky enough to take off.
Okay, that sucks, but if it can save lives and halt the spread of diseases, why does someone’s income bracket matter?
Because research isn’t done for poor people.
Altos lab is a recent start-up that has raised an estimated 270 million dollars from Jeff Bezos and other millionaires. And their only goal? Researching methods of extending life. That’s 270 million dollars that could easily help level the world hunger playing field. hell, the budget of last year’s road rage horror “movie” starring Russell Crowe “Unhinged” could have helped millions of people. Even the most pro-capitalist god-fearing U S of A loving person would struggle to argue that any regular person would benefit from medicine and research that could extend lives in the way that Bezos wants. Insulin in the US is at an average of $98.70, (it’s $6.94 in Australia and $12 in Canada). Chemotherapy, surgery, even depression medication is unattainable for many.
If a rich subset of people can live without the possibility of down syndrome, sickle cell, or cystic fibrosis, then much of their funding and medical bills that pay for research that has helped regular folks survive and thrive with disabilities will be allocated to whatever else is affecting the upper class. Flint Michigan took years to get clean water and still isn’t 100% there. Huge fires still rage on in California, but Elon Musk gets to spend millions on rockets so he can litter into space while people call him “the real-life Tony Stark.” If daddy Elon willed it so, I bet Flint would have champagne coming from their taps- but instead he is busy segregating his factories and murdering monkeys. If those whose money and needs make things happen are unaffected by issues, then those issues will never be resolved, so perhaps free reign on genome editing isn’t the best idea (unless you hate poor people).
That being said, the world isn’t black and white. Neither my nor my partners’ families are swimming in wealth, and yet our lives have been unequivocally made better by the benefits that genome editing brought us. It stinks that the wealthy dictate everything, but that’s a cold hard fact and it has been for a very long time. Should we allow every other type of scientific development progress as planned, though the wealthy may abuse it, while stopping CRISPR? Is it better to let things run their course, and hope for the best? Or to halt progress in the hopes that it may level the playing field? In the end, this argument doesn’t seem to revolve around whether genome editing is good, but if it’s good in a for-profit society.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of these arguments, but it seems like both sides have their fair points. Genome editing could be incredible, but it could also turn into an ableist excuse to further dehumanize the disabled. 
Real-life is complex, and the fine line between detection of cancer in embryos and the selective breeding of a race of super enslaved people is just that- an incredibly fine line, but still must be cautious. It is human nature to take things too far, so regardless of which side you fall on the spectrum- do what you can to hold lawmakers, billionaires, and the researchers they pay accountable.
I know I will.