Is Gene Editing Causing a Revival of Eugenics?

Last week the National Institutes of Health cleared the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) for its first clinical test of human patients. While the initial test involves editing to fight cancer cells, many are calling for this same technology to be used to edit genetic traits like Down syndrome and autism out of the gene pool. This has stirred up concerns of a new push for eugenic purging of the differently abled (or disabled).

While this groundbreaking technique has the potential to cure previously incurable diseases, it will also soon give scientists and doctors the power to edit the human genome and select genes considered “normal.” This ability to select and edit out genes considered undesirable means that those with impairments and disabilities could be targeted as well, if the initial human trials are deemed safe.

Before we go down this path of creating gene-changing “cures” for people with disabilities, it’s important to consider whether the disabled actually want a “cure,” which will permanently alter the traits and characteristics that constitute their personal identity. From an outside perspective, we’re often brought to believe that those with disabilities suffer unfulfilled lives full of misery in which they are desperately wishing to be like everyone else, but often the only thing they would wish to change is the way that other people treat them. It was in this misguided attitude toward the disabled that the eugenic movements of the twentieth century won widespread support, resulting in compulsory sterilizations. These horrific human rights violations didn’t just happen in Nazi Germany; they happened right here in the United States.

It’s important that we not continue down the path of mistakenly marking genetic traits as diseases. By mislabeling a person’s divergent traits as a disease, we will begin to lose the genetic diversity of humanity, which has enabled the valuable and eccentric contributions of the differently abled to society. Some familiar names of people thought to have had some form of autism include Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, and Michelangelo. It would be hard to imagine life today without their important contributions to science, art, and our way of life (although that doesn’t mean achievements should be the focus of human value).

Most importantly, we should come to realize that disability is a social construct that stigmatizes those who differ from the general populace. Just because someone lacks one widespread ability doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable as a human being.

We should not be picking and choosing the aspects of a person that we deem to be valuable. We should accept the entire person for who they are, without trying to make them more like ourselves. This is not to say that we should shy away from CRISPR genetic editing altogether, but rather that we should be very careful about situations in which we choose to employ it.

With the prospect of genetic selection in human embryos already upon us, we must quickly improve our attitudes towards the differently abled and realize that the search for a cure to disabilities is rooted in subtle patronizing attitudes in order to avoid future human rights violations. As one YouTube vlogger aptly put it, “My body doesn’t need a cure. Society’s attitudes do.” Watch her full video below.