Only the Very Best Will Do

Only the Very Best Will Do

Should the Rich be Allowed to Buy the Best Genes?

“A big problem with enhancement is equal access. Should rich people be allowed to buy the best genes they can afford?”

So says Erik Sontheimer, a CRISPR pioneer, to Walter Isaacson as they eat dinner after a day attending a conference in Quebec City all about the molecular gene editing tool. While Sontheimer’s biological research expertise can’t be questioned, the same can’t be said for his understanding of human nature and the reality of the competitive market.

This argument of equal access is specious. Rich people impregnate Playboy bunnies and have good-looking children with them. Rich people pay up to $100,000 for egg donation from exceedingly attractive women. Do smart people tend to mate with other smart people? Do good-looking people tend to mate with good-looking people? What if a smart (but unattractive) person wants a child who is good-looking and smart? What if an attractive (but not smart) person wants a child who is good-looking and smart?

No, in fact the opposite is true to Sontheimer’s statement. In a competitive (priced) market for defined genetics (HuGE), poor people can have access to healthy children the way poor people can afford smartphones. Many medical technologies are available around the world that started in one place with a wealthy clientele and were later mass produced and commercialized.

This notion of “best genes” is also specious. If I have a pathogenic allele for Alzheimer’s, I don’t want to pass it on to my child. Give me a safer allele to pass on instead. I will pay for that. “Best genes” implies a fitness test in a world that doesn’t test for fitness anymore. What happens in a defined genetics competitive marketplace is that aging intended parents can make sure the one or two children they have are not only healthy, but smarter, better looking, and probably less depressed than Mom and Dad were. How does this make the world a worse place? Why is it important that rich people have unhealthy, dumb, and unattractive children?

If the worry is equal access, then countries like Sweden can just add HuGE to their national health care. Since a massive number of diseases are genetic in nature, the program pays for itself. The real risk of HuGE is that big government controls our reproductive choices instead of free-acting intended parents in a competitive marketplace. I’d rather not see that dystopian science fiction world become our reality.

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