The Moral Conundrums of Gene Editing, An Officer’s Perspective

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Written by Santhosh Shivashankar, Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy

What do the successful military officers of today think are the most important issues impacting global affairs? Serving military officers answer here in a new series of features in collaboration with Military Leadership Circle (MLC).

As with many novel, cutting-edge developments over the course of history, the technology and capability of gene editing is both promising and fraught with potential moral pitfalls. Whatever the ethical and philosophical challenges presented by the possibility of altering humanity’s very basic biological codes, however, it’s likely true that genetic modification will constitute one of the most important developments of the near future for everyone on the planet.

Many have heard of breakthroughs in Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) with regards to gene editing. It’s been recently noted that, while processes previously existed to manipulate genes, they were cumbersome and costly to carry out. Because each manipulation required a specifically produced protein, only well-resourced corporations and federally-backed academic institutions could produce large scale edits. CRISPR lowered the threshold for entry into the gene editing race for both cost and requisite knowledge. Hank Greely, Director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School, has stated that “two people with B.S. degrees in Biology, a garage, and a thousand dollars” could fundamentally alter all of the mosquitos in California. While Greely was participating in a discussion on research to eliminate the Zika virus, it is equally true that the same editing capability could be used to enhance or spread that virus. A state actor, lone wolf, or terrorist group could use gene editing technology to fundamentally change the course of human history, without ever editing the human genome.

No matter how accessible the scientific methods become, of course, human genome editing is extraordinarily complex with regards to moral implications. While in the United States, public airing of ethical concerns has placed a hedge on some research, scientists in China have experimented on nonviable human embryos. More than that, papers produced in the past year have shown meaningful gene editing with viable human embryos that were allowed to grow up to 14 days. 2018 is likely the year that we will see in vitro fertilization (IVF) of a CRISPR- altered embryo.

So, why will such editing prove a flashpoint in the near future? There are numerous other issues, such as cybersecurity, the rise of crypto currencies, education, and health care, that will all be important in coming years as well. Indeed, such issues will likely grab more headlines. But the technology and trends suggest that we are not far away from the moment in which some biology majors in a garage create something that is not naturally occurring. And if that’s the case, what will stop state actors from using this technology for nefarious purposes? This will be, inevitably, a cause for conflict.

Indeed, although most of the novel and vexing issues of our present and future will deal with how humans interact with each other, gene editing is the only area in which the question will become “what is humanity”? Perhaps more importantly, it raises the related question: “what do we want humanity to be”? Are we ready to confront an issue in which state conflict converges with the very definition and future of our entire species?

About the author: Santhosh Shivashankar is a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy and a member of the Military Leadership Circle. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense, United States Navy, or any government agency. More information on the Military Leadership Circle can be found at https://militaryleadershipcircle.com.