10 Must-Know Genome Editing Ethical Concerns: CRISPR-Cas9

Genome editing

There are several ethical concerns with genome editing, which makes genome research a highly debatable topic as far as DNA technology is concerned. Many people want to know the pros and cons involved in gene editing (ethical concerns about CRISPR genome editing technology), is it risky, or ethical and what are some concerns in various fields such as agriculture. It is true that human genome projects have massive ethical implications, some of which are listed below.

The 10 bioethical concerns in genome editing

1. Safety

Genome editing procedures may introduce unintended changes to the genome, known as off-target edits, posing unpredictable and potentially harmful consequences for individuals or their offspring.

“Although CRISPR/Cas systems exhibit tremendous potential in translational medicine, off-target effects remain a major challenge. The off-target effects occur when Cas9 acts on untargeted genomic sites and creates cleavages that may lead to adverse outcomes. The off-target sites are often sgRNA-dependent, since Cas9 is known to tolerate up to 3 mismatches between sgRNA and genomic DNA.”


In germline editing, altering the genetic makeup of embryos or gametes raises complex questions about consent, as the entities being modified cannot provide consent themselves. This prompts discussions on who holds the authority to make decisions about their genetic modification.

“Germline interventions, as does any therapeutic intervention, require consent. Obviously, however, embryos are not able to consent to germline interventions [52]. Instead, (future) parents of such embryos could consent to germline treatment. Consent of mothers carrying genetically modified embryos to term will be of particular importance.”


3. Equity and Access

Concerns revolve around the potential exacerbation of social and economic inequalities by limiting access to genome editing technology. If only the wealthy can afford it, this could widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

“Genome editing (should) be affordable and accessible throughout the world. If the technology remains accessible only to wealthier and generally privileged populations, genome editing will exacerbate inequalities and racial, social, and economic tensions. Rates of certain diseases in wealthy, largely White, populations will decrease, while those in historically marginalized or vulnerable populations will remain unchanged or even worsen.”


4. Unintended Consequences

Genome editing may have unforeseen consequences for human evolution and the natural world, impacting future generations and ecosystems as a result of altering the genetic makeup of individuals.

“If germline gene editing is used to eradicate conditions that are in fact not negative, this will not improve the health of future generations at all. Worse, if we use germline gene editing overzealously, it may harm future generations, by removing valuable forms of human diversity.”


5. Eugenics

The prospect of creating “designer babies” through genome editing raises concerns about eugenics, fostering selective breeding to enhance human traits, which could lead to discrimination and social stratification based on genetic characteristics.

“The paper interrogates the evolved conceptualization of eugenics, exercised on the part of prospective parents as part of reproductive autonomy. By this, the paper predicates that it indirectly reinforces societal and systemic problems of discrimination and “othering”, increasing reproductive inequalities in excluded communities.”


6. Impact on Human Dignity

Genome editing blurs the lines of what it means to be human, raising questions about human dignity and autonomy in the context of modifying the fundamental aspects of our genetic code.

“Human germline editing raises a number of essential ethical issues that have spawned intense debate. According to some bioethical arguments and legal documents, germline modification would threaten human dignity, since they consider the human genome as the physical representation [of human dignity]”


7. Regulation and Oversight

The rapid development of genome editing technology surpasses regulatory bodies’ ability to establish clear guidelines and oversight mechanisms, potentially leading to irresponsible and unethical uses of the technology.

“Subsequently, regulatory laws that may eliminate breaches of germline genome editing will need to be reassessed. The therapeutic use of CRISPR-Cas9 and its rapid rise in the medical field are expected to continue. While studies on the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for clinical purposes are continuing, the necessary legal, social, and ethical legislation should be put into practice as soon as possible and the public conscience should not be ignored.”


8. Public Engagement and Education

Open dialogue and public engagement are crucial to ensuring that decisions about genome editing are informed by societal values and ethical principles. Public education is essential to raise awareness and understanding of the technology’s potential benefits and risks.

“Public engagement efforts are crucially important for guiding societal and political debates about the social, ethical, legal, and political aspects of applications of human genome editing. Given the infrastructures already in place to engage the public, as well as the general principles for engagement discussed in this chapter, the committee sees particular value in an approach that uses different processes for engagement for different types of questions surrounding genome editing.”


9. International Cooperation

Given the global nature of genome editing, international cooperation is essential to develop harmonized ethical standards and regulations. This helps prevent the exploitation of loopholes in different jurisdictions and ensures responsible use worldwide.

“It is important for States and governments to accept the principle of a shared global responsibility when the engineering of the human genome is involved. The race to be the first should be avoided,especially when germline modification is proposed.”


10. Long-Term Implications

The long-term consequences of genome editing remain unknown, emphasizing the importance of considering potential impacts on future generations and the environment.

“It is crucial that we consider the impact such technologies will have on future generations. The ability to alter our biological makeup will create immense opportunities but also pose novel threats. It is crucial that we make sensible decisions about the development and use of gene-editing technologies.”


“According to them, the risks include random mutations occurring in the modified genome, deleterious consequences for future generations, extrapolation of the procedure for non-therapeutic purposes, and negative impact on social perception about somatic cell editing. In view of this scenario, the authors recommend the establishment of a voluntary moratorium with the objective of discouraging human germ modifications.”


What are the arguments for (in support of) human genome editing?

  1. Therapeutic Potential: Genome editing has the potential to treat genetic diseases effectively. For instance, correcting the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis could offer a cure to affected individuals. Example: Editing the gene associated with sickle cell anemia could provide a life-changing therapy for individuals affected by this hereditary condition.
  2. Prevention of Genetic Disorders: Genome editing could prevent the transmission of genetic disorders. For example, editing genes related to familial Alzheimer’s disease could eliminate the risk of passing on this condition to future generations. Example: Modifying a gene linked to a high risk of breast cancer could significantly reduce the likelihood of the disease in subsequent generations.
  3. Enhancing Human Health and Traits: Proponents argue that genome editing could enhance human health and traits. For example, increasing resistance to diseases could lead to a healthier population overall. Example: Editing genes for enhanced immunity might contribute to a population less susceptible to infectious diseases.
  4. Genetic Diversity and Adaptation: Genome editing could address genetic challenges posed by environmental changes. For instance, editing genes related to tolerance to extreme temperatures could aid human adaptation to climate change. Example: Modifying genes associated with heat tolerance could help populations thrive in regions experiencing rising temperatures.
  5. Addressing Societal Challenges: Some argue that genome editing could address societal challenges. For example, editing crops for increased yield could contribute to food security. Example: Modifying the genes of food crops to make them more resistant to pests could enhance agricultural productivity, helping address global food shortages.

What are the arguments against human genome editing?

  1. Unintended Consequences: Genome editing could result in unforeseen effects on human evolution and societal norms. For instance, altering a gene to enhance intelligence might unintentionally impact other cognitive functions negatively. Example: Modifying a gene associated with intelligence might inadvertently affect emotional intelligence, leading to unanticipated social consequences.
  2. Safety Concerns: The risk of off-target edits in evolving genome editing techniques poses a threat to individuals’ health. For instance, an attempt to correct a disease-related gene might inadvertently introduce harmful changes. Example: Editing a gene to cure a hereditary disorder could unintentionally trigger a cascade of events leading to an increased susceptibility to certain infections.
  3. Ethical Concerns: Ethical questions arise regarding the potential for discrimination based on altered genetic characteristics. For example, selecting for specific traits could lead to societal biases. Example: Choosing genes for physical attractiveness may inadvertently contribute to beauty-based discrimination, affecting individuals with naturally occurring features.
  4. Consent and Informed Decision-Making: Germline editing raises complex issues of consent. For example, if parents make genetic decisions for their children, it might lead to unintended consequences for the child’s identity. Example: Modifying a gene associated with musical talent might clash with a child’s natural inclination, impacting their sense of self.
  5. Equity and Access: Limiting access to genome editing technology to the wealthy could worsen social inequalities. For instance, if only affluent individuals can afford genetic enhancements, a genetic divide may emerge. Example: Offering exclusive access to intelligence-boosting genetic modifications may exacerbate educational and career disparities.