This month the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) authorized the gene editing of embryos for up to 14 days in the UK (Scientists get ‘gene editing’ go-ahead). While it will be illegal to implant any of the embryos into women’s bodies, this is a massive step for understanding how the alteration of genes affects the development of a human embryo.
To learn more about gene editing check out this Youtube video put out by UC Berkeley:
PGD, or preimplantation genetic diagnosis, is a process that currently allows certain people (those deemed to have reasonable concern that they may pass on a severe genetic condition or chromosomal abnormalities), to screen embryos prior to implantation through IVS (Franklin, 2006).
However, gene editing brings to mind how screening could become modification. Distopic visions of “designer babies” aside, this technology has the potential to engineer healthy babies and remove genetic conditions from future generations, and that is worth paying attention to. With IVF, as Franklin explains, the goal is to get pregnant; with PGD the idea is to have the right kind of child, one free from severe genetic conditions such as sickle cell anemia (2006).
PGD can also be used to select gender for a baby. In fact, Chrissy Teigen has been in the news recently, for choosing the gender of her soon to be born baby girl after undergoing IVF. Check out this article on Teigen defending her choice: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/chrissy-teigen-john-legend-baby-ivf-a6893621.html. We can see that some future parents, those with the means to do so, are already using existing technologies to make choices for their soon to be children. What other application might gene editing have?
For example, gene editing has the potential not to erase or remove severe genetic and chromosomal difference, but to have cosmetic applications. As Strathern explains, “in our culture” cosmetics “have the overt aim of enhancing the individual” (1979, pg. 241). However, gene editing has the potential to alter the body before its cells begin to grow and divide. How will expectations of enhancement and beauty be transformed if gene editing is developed and practiced?
For example, in Brazil cosmetic surgery is paid for by the government, despite wait times of over a year in some cases, and is seen as a form of therapy (Edmonds, 2007). Especially for young women, cosmetic surgery is seen as a way to boost self confidence and worth when education is often inaccessible (Edmonds, 2007). Of course, gene editing technology is nowhere near capable of sculpting a shapely nose, at least not yet.
Additionally, in Dubai, skin whitening is very common among women and some men (Parkhurst, 2013). Darker skin is undesirable not only because it is seen as less beautiful but because it is also seen as dangerous. Parkhurst, when interviewing a group of Emirati men was told that “It is unfortunately true that darker women spread diseases, and now we know that they have sicknesses and AIDS” (2013, pp.244). Some women who undergo procedures to have their skin lightened believe that their future children’s skin will be lighter also. We can see here that ideas of controlling genetics and the creation of more desirable bodies already exists to a certain extent.
Additionally, plastic surgery advertisements in South Korea on the Subway exclaim to walkers by: “Everyone but you has done it” (About Face). These advertisements not only encourage people to get plastic surgery but ostracize them for not doing so. What concepts of “normal” and “healthy” will be benchmarks in different communities? And how will the gaps in opportunities of those who can afford these procedures and those who cannot widen if bodies are constructed and designed in the womb? While these ideas exist only in science fiction at present, the framework of gene editing provides an chance to discuss how bodies and beauty are constructed cross-culturally through plastic surgery.
If one thinks of the body as a canvas, how through potential future gene editing could an unborn baby also be a canvas, reflective of the aspirations, anxieties and design of parents?
Edmonds, Alexander. 2007.’The Poor Have the Right to be Beautiful’: Cosmetic Surgery in Neoliberal Brazil. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13: 363-381.
Franklin, S. (2006) “Going through PGD” from Franklin, Sarah, Born and made: an ethnography of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, pp.132-162, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press .Franklin, S. (2006) “Going through PGD” from Franklin, Sarah, Born and made: an ethnography of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, pp.132-162, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press .
Parkhurst, Aaron (2013) “Skin Whitening” Excerpt From Genes and Djinn: Anxiety and Identity in SE Arabia.
Strathern, Marilyn. 1979. “The self in self-decoration.” Oceania 49: 241–57.
This image comes from an article discussing the technology behind CRISPR and “genetic regulation as treatment, shepherding in the future of medicine” : http://mic.com/articles/131985/the-best-tool-for-gene-editing-can-do-something-way-cooler-than-gene-editing#.R4ShORkrp