Changing My Mind About Gene Editing
A father unexpectedly finds hope in the midst of CRISPR's darkest hour, the gene-edited twins Nana and Lulu. If this represented the bad, what's the good?
I am a Christian, scientist, father, and previously an opponent of gene editing in human embryos. The fact that my position changed still surprises me. Perhaps most surprising of all is that my conversion was born out of the CRISPR revolution’s darkest hour.
Five years ago this November 25th, Dr. He Jiankui announced that he had used CRISPR to modify the genome of implanted embryos—one of which resulted in twin girls, Nana and Lulu. While Dr. Jiankui was swiftly and universally condemned, the proverbial cat was out of the bag. The spectral possibility of germline gene editing coalesced overnight into corporeal form, and the world— particularly for Nana and Lulu—would never be the same.
Dr. Jiankui’s action stunned the scientist in me, but it also struck a deeper chord. At the time, my wife and I were expecting our second son. In the aftermath of the CRISPR bombshell, I wondered: Would my sons have to make decisions as to the design of their children? I trembled as I considered how to prepare them for such a future. Conception is arguably one of the most miraculous acts of creation in which God invites our participation. A living, breathing baby made by love in the image of Love. How might that image of Love be distorted by our taking yet another bite of forbidden fruit? Determined to better inform my opinion in hopes of preparing my sons for these types of questions, I began a mental sojourn the only way I know how, rafting down a river of books.
Playing with Fire
My trip downriver began with the Greeks, specifically, the Promethean myth, a commentary on humankind’s relationship with technology. Prometheus is the Titan trickster of Greek mythology who created man from clay, stole fire from Zeus for mankind, and, thereafter, was chained to a rock to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle. I was surprised to discover the view of Prometheus has evolved over time rendering him an object of pity rather than a champion of humankind despite his gruesome eternal punishment.
This is because at its core, the Promethean myth is about the conflicted nature of “progress.” Every technological progress, from fire to gene editing, comes with the potential for good and harm. Prometheus brought fire to us, but what warms the hearth can also burn down the house. This dualistic perspective of progress runs counter to the pervasive ideology that all progress is good.
Prometheus led me to Mary Shelley’s poignant modern retelling in “Frankenstein.” Shelley recasts the Titan god as a mad scientist who brings life to a corpse. Reading “Frankenstein” was unnerving as Shelley brilliantly connects the manic state-of-mind that often underlies scientific innovation—a mindset I know firsthand—with its dark conclusion that if we are not careful, our creation can become our destruction. However, I realized the tragedy of “Frankenstein” is not the creation itself, but Dr. Frankenstein’s abhorrence and abandonment of his creation. Like the monster of Shelley’s imagination, humankind’s discoveries come as a tabula rasa that can be defaced by the culture that created it.
Every technological progress, from fire to gene editing, comes with the potential for good and harm. Prometheus brought fire to us, but what warms the hearth can also burn down the house.
“Frankenstein” prompted me to pick up Bird and Sherwin’s brilliant biography of Robert Oppenheimer, “American Prometheus.” Bird and Sherwin deftly weave the parallels between the Promethean myth and Oppenheimer’s life until the myth becomes eerily prophetic. In the form of an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer brought the sun’s fire to man, a literal Prometheus, calcifying the connection between science and the Promethean myth.
On the surface, each story reinforced my cynical perspective on the potential danger of gene editing. However, a deeper current connected them. Every technology has the potential for good and bad applications. Fire—for cooking or arson. Splitting the atom—for nuclear medicine or making bombs. If He Jiankui represented the bad, what were the good uses of gene editing?
Sitting curled up next to my pregnant wife, the question took my breath away. If I had the opportunity to alleviate the suffering of a child, my child, via the safe use of CRISPR, would I do it? My answer was, Of course.
To answer this, I turned to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene.” Mukherjee contextualizes the discovery and fallout of coming to read (and possibly edit) the “language of God.” Despite our present familiarity with genes, they are still a relatively new concept in the scope of human history. The genetics revolution has outpaced the cultural buttresses that would serve to safeguard its appropriate applications. Indeed, as “The Gene” makes clear through examples of Mengele’s twin experiments and America’s forced sterilization of Carrie Buck in Buck vs Bell, the culture into which a genetic technology is born strongly influences its use, for good or harm.
Pondering the culture CRISPR has been born into, at first glance, is disheartening. The increasing polarization of society leaves no domain untouched ranging from vaccines to climate change. If gene editing becomes a political issue as vaccinations have, we could end up with two species: one prohibiting all edits and the other promoting freelancing. I fear that all the elements are in place for a world where gene editing is pursued without regard for future consequences, to accomplish a narrowly defined beauty, and without ensuring equitable access.
But then “The Gene” comes to genetic diseases impacting children. Sitting curled up next to my pregnant wife, the question took my breath away. If I had the opportunity to alleviate the suffering of a child, my child, via the safe use of CRISPR, would I do it? My answer was, Of course.
My Thoughts as a Christian
As a Christian, I know that the purpose of life is not to avoid suffering. Christ himself modeled this, as did his disciples. Rather, we are called to pick up our cross and follow Christ (Matthew 16). Nevertheless, in the Gospels Christ sent his disciples out to heal those who were sick and suffering (Matthew 10). Acknowledging the reality of suffering does not invite us to compound it or neglect to alleviate it for our neighbors if we are enabled to heal by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12).
There remain many complex situations that make navigating genetic editing a slippery slope. For example, increasing height or muscle is an enhancement in most instances, but could be a treatment in others. This difficult distinction led The National Academy of Sciences to urge confining the use of gene editing in human embryos for serious conditions where no other medical approach is available.
I recently met a family at a wedding who was navigating their newborn’s diagnosis of hemophilia, a disease caused by a mutation in one of two genes on the X chromosome. Preventing transmission of this mutation satisfies all the requirements for the distinction of therapy in my mind. This perspective marked my conversion. Though I remain opposed to unrestrained genetic experimentation, I now perceive a total ban as equally problematic.
However, the ends do not justify the means, and further research into CRISPR must be pursued ethically. Topics such as the use of fetal tissue and IVF require more systematic treatment than can be pursued herein, nevertheless they must be carefully considered. The extra time and care we devote to these conversations will invariably delay CRISPR’s clinical promise, but no shortcut is worth taking. Additionally, current versions of CRISPR are still too imprecise to use today for germline therapy, which makes He Jiankui’s rash decision even more troubling. Yet more precise CRISPRs are coming. Above all, help must not be given recklessly, but with due humility. A lack of humility was He Jiankui’s ultimate failure as he sought his glory above the wellbeing of Nana and Lulu. The purpose of healing is not our glory but God’s (Luke 5) who by his Spirit enables our participation.
Into the Garden
My sojourn downriver concluded with an essay on gardening. Superficially about the nature of garden weeds, Michael Pollan’s essay “Weeds are Us” is really about the heart of the Promethean paradox. Pollan suggests we cannot live in the world without changing it irrevocably. Having done so, we are obliged to tend to the consequences, which is to say, “to garden.”
Gardening is not just something we do to the land but in our stewardship of technology. After every groundbreaking discovery, we must garden that broken ground. As it is in the garden, so it is with combating climate change, using social media, creating AI, and deploying genetic technology. We are both the weed and the gardener. Only by coming to terms with this paradox are we equipped to pull today’s weeds with the humility to know our solutions will beget more weeds tomorrow. Pollan’s perspective suggests there will be weeds in any human endeavor, including editing germline DNA because humans are weeds. But to do nothing is to succumb to the weeds growing in both the land and our genome.
So what can I do to prepare my sons for their future decisions around gene editing? Give them these books and the Bible to read. Teach them about their “Promethean gene”—their inherited drive to ceaselessly create those things that can destroy them. Teach them to garden, to discern good fruit from weeds. Can I make their future decisions around genetic technology easy? No. As Dr. Seuss says in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” “Easy it is not you will find, for a mind maker upper, to make up your mind.” But I can teach them to think critically, read expansively, and pray humbly.
So what can I do to prepare my sons for their future decisions around gene editing?..I can teach them to think critically, read expansively, and pray humbly.
We are remarkably complex, yet malleable. Robustness and fragility intertwined together like two strands of DNA. The beautiful diversity of humankind should never cease to astonish us—unending complexity arising from 4 simple letters. Genetics is not the whole of our story, but it is a part of it. And choosing to edit that part will be a perfect expression of our Promethean gene.
Three years after the CRISPR story broke, my wife and I welcomed our third son. I was grateful for yet another healthy pregnancy, but now I know, if safe, there are instances in which I would use CRISPR to alleviate my child’s suffering as a Christian, scientist, and father.
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