In a new era of genetics, where’s the line between healing and enhancement?

Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office with your spouse. As you discuss the possibility of starting a family, the doctor tells you that you have the option to genetically enhance your child’s intelligence. Medical professionals can do this without risking the life of the embryo. They guarantee it to work. Would you do it?

Suppose you are pregnant. A genetic test reveals your child has Down syndrome, and you are offered the option to undo the genetic mutation. Would you?

These are among the questions asked by an unlikely fellowship of churches and scientists.

In 2013, scientists demonstrated that a technology known as CRISPR can edit the genes of living human cells at a fraction of the time and cost required by previous methods. Think of editing the genome like a “find-and-replace” function: a tool finds, removes, and replaces a specific sequence of genetic material. In older methods of gene editing, imprecise protein structures, which are laborious to construct, search for the specific sequence. Instead, CRISPR uses RNA, which most good graduate students working in a lab can construct cheaply and quickly.

Additionally, it’s possible to use CRISPR to edit the germline—embryonic or reproductive cells, in which any edits pass on to all future generations.

This advance holds tremendous promise for curing any number of genetically driven maladies, including sickle-cell disease and various forms of cancer. But it also raises thorny ethical questions about how, when, and by whom such technology should be used. The same technology that could address muscular dystrophy could also enhance the strength of an already healthy person.

A Crossover Conversation

George Church is credited with proving that CRISPR …

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