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Protesters hold a yellow sign that reads, "race to the bottom??"

Unless we pay much more attention to ethical and social choices, we risk turning the promise of gene editing into disaster.

In a breakthrough announced Wednesday, scientists successfully edited the genes of a human embryo to eliminate a dangerous gene mutation. This hasn’t yet produced the birth of an actual baby with genes selected by technological means, but that is on the way — and soon. Science and technological capacity are racing ahead of ethics, safety regulations and our understanding of risks and societal implications.

The potential for “designer babies” has been circulating for years, not just in science fiction but in exciting new research and real-world effects. Already, in-vitro fertilization offers parents assistance in conception and, together with other technologies, allows parents to select healthy embryos, choose the sex of their children and manage a variety of aspects of human reproduction once thought simply to be matters of nature or divine action.

Sex selection, made possible by cruder technologies, has remade the marriage and life prospects of a generation of young Chinese, Indians and others. Now, these capacities have...