Designing Babies: The Next Step in Human En-gene-eering

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By Nolitha Ngamlana

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 2 of VARSITY News.


What is a gene-edited embryo? Well, you might have come across it in biology class back in high school when your teacher probably taught you about DNA and scientists creating ways of modifying it. Or you might have seen it in one of the Simpsons episodes. I mean, even Disney’s Lab Rats has developed and successfully aired four seasons founded on this gigantic step in human development. This topic has been covered for many years with the possibility of it becoming reality in the future.  Guess what? It is.


To understand gene-edited embryos, we first need to understand what DNA is. DNA is known as an “instruction manual” in creating certain traits and features in human beings and all other living organisms. This means that DNA will code for a certain genotype which will then create a phenotype in the body such as eye colour. Genome engineering commonly known as Gene-editing is when DNA in a human or any other living organism is modified, inserted or taken out to prevent a certain disease from occurring or to add certain modifications to a living organism for it to function at an optimum level.


Recently, countries like China and North America have introduced gene-editing in their respective medical fields to create ‘perfect’ humans. That is, humans that are born without diseases or hazardous mutations in their bodies. One of these “edits” being, for example, changing the genes of an embryo to prevent the baby from being blind once it is born. This is a revolutionary step in preventing many people from suffering incurable diseases or having to face their lives living with disabilities. This would help many people across the globe from having to deal with emotional stresses/strains, medical costs of sending their children, or themselves, for endless examinations and surgeries which could still not guarantee a cure.


Who knows? This might even lead to ground-breaking discoveries on how to modify the body to live longer or to survive better in certain conditions such as low temperatures or high temperatures. Or even, if we want to dream big, one day we might see ourselves being able to adapt to breathing under water – why not? Anything is possible at this point.


But there is a down side to this. If we are going to edit genes to make humans live longer, prevent diseases/disabilities or modify humans to make them stronger – people will also want their physical attributes to change too. That is, people will now have the choice of what ‘kind’ of baby they want. They will have total control over hair colour, eye colour, if the baby should be a boy or girl and even its race. If that happens, that means that diversity in humanity will decrease.


In the age where we are protesting for more diversity, building on the legacies and past battles of people fighting for not only freedom but freedom to be accepted as being different from others and promoted in all platforms of media, won’t gene-editing embryos for physical traits other than health reasons just slow that down? Will that not create more racial and body shaming issues in society? And will that not pressure people to conform to what is considered beautiful and be forced to design their babies the way society wants them to be?


This could come to a point where we reach Adolf-Hitler-vibes of wanting to create the ‘desired’ race and even the ‘desired’ look. Such ideas also already exist in today’s societies. Just switch on your television, some races or some other traits are preferred over others.


Gene-editing is great for preventing health problems but for changing or designing someone’s look, that is going to be very problematic. People will never be able to have the chance to think for themselves as to how they want to look. They will automatically be ‘given’ a look. Is that not in a way some type of forcing certain traits and ideologies on people without their consent? If someone wants to change the way the other one looks, should that person not have a say?



This section of VARSITY is a vehicle for expression on any topic by members of the UCT community. The opinions within this section are not necessarily those of the VARSITY collective or its advertisers.


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