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circular graphic representing a human genome

In November 2018, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, caused an international uproar by announcing the birth of two babies whose DNA he had edited using a tool called CRISPR-Cas9. Human germline genome editing—that is, making precise changes in human DNA that can be passed down through generations—has been seen for decades as a line that should not be crossed. This past December, He was sentenced to three years in prison for carrying out an “illegal medical practice.”

Yet, as the Chinese experiment shows, the state of technology no longer bars those who are willing to cross it. He’s experiment was a profound scientific and ethical misstep. Not only did he do it before adequate preparatory studies had been undertaken, but he acted unilaterally, deploying a technology with the potential to affect deeply held beliefs about human life all around the planet. His experiment set a dangerous example for other overly eager scientists. In mid-2019, a Russian scientist proposed a similar experiment.

We cannot blame lax oversight on China alone. The scientist who carried out the controversial first experiment in China... see more