Proceed with caution on genetic engineering

Last week, an international panel of scientists and ethicists concluded that changing heritable aspects in human genes would be permissible under certain conditions, going further than any previous mainstream group in endorsing the long-term aim of producing gene-edited babies ("Gene-edited babies: From red light to orange... and then green?"; Feb 20).

The most straightforward and unique advantage of genetic engineering is that it prevents the inheritance of devastating genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, beta thalassemia or Huntington's disease.

It could also be used to modify genes to lower the risk of contracting diseases like HIV/AIDS.

However, it may be impossible to draw a line between using this technology for "therapy" and using it for "enhancement".

On practical grounds, genetic enhancement procedures could potentially lead to the widening of the rich-poor divide in society, as the wealthy would be able to engineer smarter, healthier and more attractive children, thus giving them even greater advantages in life.

From an ethical point of view, it is important to consider whether parents or medical professionals have the inherent right to alter a baby before it has been born.

As scientists focus on accomplishments and whether a thing can be done, they must also stop to ask if it should be done.

A baby cannot consent to having his body altered. Genetically engineering a child would be a violation of his fundamental right to bodily integrity.

Another ethical issue to consider would be the loss of individuality in a society that prides itself on conformity. This could open the door to eugenics.

It would be wise to exercise caution on this issue. As scientists focus on accomplishments and whether a thing can be done, they must also stop to ask if it should be done.

International scientific bodies should not only implement stringent regulations on genetic engineering practices, but also engage actively and effectively with politicians and the public to ensure a sturdy legal framework.

Denise Lee Hui Jean (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline 'Proceed with caution on genetic engineering'. Print Edition | Subscribe