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Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal

ISSN Print: 2151-805X
ISSN Online: 2151-8068

Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal

DOI: 10.1615/EthicsBiologyEngMed.2016016260
pages 263-279

Cutting Eugenics Out of CRISPR-Cas9

Carolyn Brokowski
Bioethics (Medical Ethics) Department, Columbia University School of Professional Studies, New York, New York
Marya Pollack
Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Inwood Clinic, New York, New York
Robert Pollack
Biological Sciences Department, Columbia University School of the Arts, New York, New York

ABSTRACT

The use of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and their associated (Cas) proteins (the CRISPR-Cas system) in genomic engineering is among the most promising biomedical innovations to occur in the last few decades. One of this system's most profound features is its ability to edit genomes with impressive specificity, which may cause significant alterations of cellular, tissue, and organismal phenotypes at the near instance of the editing, over the lifespan of the organism and potentially into any number of future generations. We argue that the use of the CRISPR-Cas9 system to edit the human germline should be legally prohibited on account of the system's potential for generating an unjust eugenic future. Its use in nongermline experimentation and applications, however, should not be constrained on eugenic grounds. Such a blanket legal prohibition might limit the progress gleaned from this technology. Allowing experimentation in human subjects more broadly might expose participants to considerable risk and potentially harmful outcomes, and the system might prove unable to realize tangible therapeutic outcomes that seem likely ex ante. We conclude that the uncertainty inherent in CRISPR use should not lead to reflexive, preemptive prohibitions, but instead to ethical, fastidious, and controlled experimentation.