The Regulation Paradox in Germline Engineering and Designer Babies

We live in an age where technology is pervasively seen as a process and solution for any social gap that exist today. While technology definitely acts as a bridge, it also opens up many unchartered territories that are yet to be understood from moral and societal standpoint.

Regulations in the technology space has by far been very reactive and sometimes even non-existent. The discussion around enforcing a regulation becomes a mainstream topic for government only when there are visible damages envisioned at the public level. We have seen huge mishaps in the way the regulations were enforced for many new technology companies in social media, artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, blockchain, drones, e-commerce, fintech, etc. The need for rapid growth of the economy, higher degree of citizen sophistication, greater degree of power and control in the international space, first mover advantage, fear of missing out to competitors, coupled with lack of understanding of the technology and unavailability of references often pushes the regulators to seek consulting from the same tech companies that run these businesses. Moreover, the tech space is hardly limited to or limited by nationalistic boundaries, and hence no country is immune to the developments happening elsewhere in the global space.

Designing DNA or Genetic Engineering is one such technology that is rapidly gaining momentum in the global community, through the easy availability of gene editing tools like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). The fascination for engineering has moved from machines to plants & animals to now humans themselves. The idea of empowering humans through genetic modification is slowly pushing the focus of the practice from somatic (body cells, typically non-heritable; aka gene therapy) to exploring germline (reproductive cells, heritable) engineering, designing babies of choice with expected immune traits and features that can be passed to future generations. We have already seen the first instance of that in November 2018 when a Chinese scientist created two genetically engineered human beings through CRISPR technology.

Indian Council of Medical Research in its national guidelines for stem cell research has prohibited the practice of human germline editing. Unfortunately, it is only a guideline and not enforced by law. Moreover, there is no consensus in either banning or regulating the practice globally as well. The move to create an international framework has also been slow and not effective. In such an environment, what may have started as some isolated incidents in the global community has a high potential to turn into a large-scale clandestine activity in the pursuit for dominance. Similar to the effects of climate change, this problem is neither a country specific issue. If one nation is going to design its future citizens with greater human capabilities, it will have a domino effect on the other nations as well. In the highly democratized technology world, we need a new world order and the role of the United Nations have to be strengthened to tackle these kinds of issues with global and regional regulations for countries to adhere.

Will the regulators be caught again napping?

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