Designer babies: does SA have the legislative muscle it needs?
Genetic engineering is creating a whole new ethical minefield, and our laws do little to address the problem
On November 25 last year, a set of Chinese twins emerged from their mother’s womb, and as they took their first breath, they inadvertently made history: the world’s first gene-edited babies had arrived safely in the world, and quickly in their wake came a flurry of anxiety and anger in the scientific community.
He Jiankui, who was an associate professor at a university in Shenzhen, had used CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the DNA of the twin girls. He had effectively used this technology – best understood as a pair of “molecular scissors” – to render the girls immune to HIV. In the process, it is also very likely he had shortened their lifespan possibly by as much as 19 years.
Outrage ensued as Jiankui had gone where no scientist should go if the nightmare of “designer babies” is to be prevented. Human germline engineering is editing the genome of an individual in such a way that any changes made are then passed on to the next generation. It involves fiddling with the reproductive cells (egg and sperm), and brings to mind the possibility of nontherapeutic applications such as body type, face shape, eye and skin colour, and so on...