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The ethical dilemma of designer babies

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    So what if I could make for you
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    a designer baby?
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    What if you as a parent-to-be
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    and I as a scientist decided
    to go down that road together?
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    What if we didn't?
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    What if we thought, "That's a bad idea,"
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    but many of our family,
    friends and coworkers
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    did make that decision?
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    Let's fast-forward just 15 years from now.
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    Let's pretend it's the year 2030,
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    and you're a parent.
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    You have your daughter,
    Marianne, next to you,
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    and in 2030, she is what we call a natural
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    because she has no genetic modifications.
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    And because you and your partner
    consciously made that decision,
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    many in your social circle,
    they kind of look down on you.
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    They think you're, like,
    a Luddite or a technophobe.
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    Marianne's best friend Jenna,
    who lives right next door,
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    is a very different story.
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    She was born a genetically modified
    designer baby with numerous upgrades.
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    Yeah. Upgrades.
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    And these enhancements were introduced
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    using a new genetic
    modification technology
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    that goes by the funny name CRISPR,
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    you know, like something's crisp,
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    this is CRISPR.
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    The scientist that Jenna's parents
    hired to do this
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    for several million dollars
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    introduced CRISPR
    into a whole panel of human embryos.
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    And then they used genetic testing,
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    and they predicted that
    that little tiny embryo, Jenna's embryo,
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    would be the best of the bunch.
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    And now, Jenna is an actual, real person.
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    She's sitting on the carpet
    in your living room
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    playing with your daughter Marianne.
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    And your families have known
    each other for years now,
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    and it's become very clear to you
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    that Jenna is extraordinary.
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    She's incredibly intelligent.
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    If you're honest with yourself,
    she's smarter than you,
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    and she's five years old.
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    She's beautiful, tall, athletic,
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    and the list goes on and on.
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    And in fact, there's
    a whole new generation
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    of these GM kids like Jenna.
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    And so far it looks like
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    they're healthier
    than their parents' generation,
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    than your generation.
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    And they have lower health care costs.
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    They're immune to a host
    of health conditions,
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    including HIV/AIDS and genetic diseases.
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    It all sounds so great,
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    but you can't help but have
    this sort of unsettling feeling,
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    a gut feeling, that there's something
    just not quite right about Jenna,
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    and you've had the same feeling
    about other GM kids that you've met.
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    You were also reading
    in the newspaper earlier this week
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    that a study of these children
    who were born as designer babies
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    indicates they may have some issues,
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    like increased aggressiveness
    and narcissism.
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    But more immediately on your mind
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    is some news that you just got
    from Jenna's family.
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    She's so smart,
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    she's now going to be going
    to a special school,
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    a different school
    than your daughter Marianne,
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    and this is kind of throwing
    your family into a disarray.
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    Marianne's been crying,
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    and last night when you took her to bed
    to kiss her goodnight,
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    she said, "Daddy, will Jenna
    even be my friend anymore?"
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    So now, as I've been telling you
    this imagined 2030 story,
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    I have a feeling
    that I may have put some of you
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    into this sci-fi
    frame of reference. Right?
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    You think you're reading a sci-fi book.
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    Or maybe, like,
    in Halloween mode of thinking.
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    But this is really
    a possible reality for us,
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    just 15 years from now.
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    I'm a stem cell and genetics researcher
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    and I can see this new CRISPR technology
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    and its potential impact.
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    And we may find ourselves in that reality,
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    and a lot will depend
    on what we decide to do today.
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    And if you're still
    kind of thinking in sci-fi mode,
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    consider that the world of science
    had a huge shock earlier this year,
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    and the public largely
    doesn't even know about it.
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    Researchers in China just a few months ago
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    reported the creation
    of genetically modified human embryos.
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    This was the first time in history.
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    And they did it using
    this new CRISPR technology.
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    It didn't work perfectly,
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    but I still think
    they sort of cracked the door ajar
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    on a Pandora's box here.
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    And I think some people
    are going to run with this technology
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    and try to make designer babies.
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    Now, before I go on, some of you
    may hold up your hands and say,
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    "Stop, Paul, wait a minute.
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    Wouldn't that be illegal?
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    You can't just go off
    and create a designer baby."
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    And in fact, to some extent, you're right.
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    In some countries, you couldn't do that.
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    But in many other countries,
    including my country, the US,
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    there's actually no law on this,
    so in theory, you could do it.
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    And there was another development
    this year that resonates in this area,
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    and that happened
    not so far from here over in the UK.
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    And the UK traditionally
    has been the strictest country
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    when it comes to human
    genetic modification.
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    It was illegal there,
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    but just a few months ago,
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    they carved out an exception to that rule.
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    They passed a new law
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    allowing the creation
    of genetically modified humans
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    with the noble goal of trying
    to prevent a rare kind of genetic disease.
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    But still I think in combination
    these events are pushing us
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    further towards an acceptance
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    of human genetic modification.
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    So I've been talking
    about this CRISPR technology.
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    What actually is CRISPR?
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    So if you think about the GMOs
    that we're all more familiar with,
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    like GMO tomatoes and wheat
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    and things like that,
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    this technology
    is similar to the technologies
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    that were used to make those,
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    but it's dramatically better,
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    cheaper and faster.
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    So what is it?
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    It's actually like
    a genetic Swiss army knife.
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    We can pretend this is a Swiss army knife
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    with different tools in it,
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    and one of the tools
    is kind of like a magnifying glass
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    or a GPS for our DNA,
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    so it can home in on a certain spot.
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    And the next tool is like scissors
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    that can cut the DNA right in that spot.
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    And finally we have a pen
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    where we can literally rewrite
    the genetic code in that location.
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    It's really that simple.
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    And this technology, which came
    on the scene just three years ago,
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    has taken science by storm.
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    It's evolving so fast, and it's
    so freaking exciting to scientists,
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    and I admit I'm fascinated by it
    and we use it in my own lab,
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    that I think someone
    is going to go that extra step
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    and continue the GM human embryo work
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    and maybe make designer babies.
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    This is so ubiquitous now.
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    It just came on the scene three years ago.
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    Thousands of labs
    literally have this in hand today,
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    and they're doing important research.
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    Most of them are not interested
    in designer babies.
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    They're studying human disease
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    and other important elements of science.
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    So there's a lot of good research
    going on with CRISPR.
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    And the fact that we can
    now do genetic modifications
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    that used to take years
    and cost millions of dollars
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    in a few weeks
    for a couple thousand bucks,
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    to me as a scientist that's fantastic,
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    but again, at the same time,
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    it opens the door to people going too far.
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    And I think for some people
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    the focus is not going to be
    so much on science.
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    That's not what's going
    to be driving them.
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    It's going to be ideology
    or the chase for a profit.
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    And they're going to go
    for designer babies.
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    So why should we be concerned about this?
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    We know from Darwin,
    if we go back two centuries,
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    that evolution and genetics
    profoundly have impacted humanity,
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    who we are today.
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    And some think there's like
    a social Darwinism at work in our world,
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    and maybe even a eugenics as well.
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    Imagine those trends, those forces,
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    with a booster rocket
    of this CRISPR technology
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    that is so powerful and so ubiquitous.
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    And in fact, we can just go back
    one century to the last century
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    to see the power that eugenics can have.
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    So my father, Peter Knoepfler,
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    was actually born right here in Vienna.
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    He was Viennese,
    and he was born here in 1929.
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    And when my grandparents
    had little baby Peter,
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    the world was very different. Right?
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    It was a different Vienna.
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    The United States was different.
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    The world was different.
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    There was a eugenics rising,
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    and my grandparents realized,
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    pretty quickly I think,
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    that they were on the wrong side
    of the eugenics equation.
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    And so despite this being their home
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    and their whole extended family's home,
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    and this area being their family's
    home for generations,
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    they decided because of eugenics
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    that they had to leave.
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    And they survived,
    but they were heartbroken,
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    and I'm not sure my dad
    ever really got over leaving Vienna.
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    He left when he was just eight years old
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    in 1938.
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    So today, I see a new eugenics
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    kind of bubbling to the surface.
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    It's supposed to be a kinder,
    gentler, positive eugenics,
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    different than all that past stuff.
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    But I think even though it's focused
    on trying to improve people,
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    it could have negative consequences,
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    and it really worries me
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    that some of the top proponents
    of this new eugenics,
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    they think CRISPR is the ticket
    to make it happen.
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    So I have to admit, you know,
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    eugenics, we talk
    about making better people.
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    It's a tough question.
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    What is better when we're talking
    about a human being?
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    But I admit I think maybe a lot of us
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    could agree that human beings,
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    maybe we could use a little betterment.
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    Look at our politicians
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    here, you know, back in the US --
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    God forbid we go there right now.
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    Maybe even if we just look in the mirror,
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    there might be ways
    we think we could be better.
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    I might wish, honestly, that I had
    more hair here, instead of baldness.
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    Some people might wish they were taller,
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    have a different weight, a different face.
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    If we could do those things,
    we could make those things happen,
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    or we could make them happen
    in our children,
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    it would be very seductive.
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    And yet coming with it
    would be these risks.
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    I talked about eugenics,
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    but there would be risks
    to individuals as well.
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    So if we forget about enhancing people
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    and we just try to make them
    healthier using genetic modification,
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    this technology is so new
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    and so powerful,
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    that by accident
    we could make them sicker.
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    That easily could happen.
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    And there's another risk,
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    and that is that all of the legitimate,
    important genetic modification research
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    going on just in the lab --
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    again, no interest in designer babies --
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    a few people going
    the designer baby route,
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    things go badly,
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    that entire field could be damaged.
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    I also think it's not that unlikely
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    that governments might start taking
    an interest in genetic modification.
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    So for example our imagined GM Jenna child
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    who is healthier,
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    if there's a generation that looks
    like they have lower health care costs,
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    it's possible that governments
    may start trying to compel their citizens
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    to go the GM route.
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    Look at China's one-child policy.
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    It's thought that that prevented
    the birth of 400 million human beings.
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    So it's not beyond the realm of possible
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    that genetic modification
    could be something that governments push.
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    And if designer babies become popular,
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    in our digital age --
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    viral videos, social media --
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    what if designer babies
    are thought to be fashionable,
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    and they kind of become
    the new glitterati,
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    the new Kardashians or something?
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    (Laughter)
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    You know, are those trends
    that we really could control?
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    I'm not convinced that we could.
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    So again, today it's Halloween
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    and when we talk
    about genetic modification,
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    there's one Halloween-associated character
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    that is talked about
    or invoked more than anything else,
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    and that is Frankenstein.
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    Mostly that's been Frankenfoods
    and all this other stuff.
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    But if we think about this now
    and we think about it in the human context
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    on a day like Halloween,
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    if parents can in essence
    costume their children genetically,
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    are we going to be talking about
    a Frankenstein 2.0 kind of situation?
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    I don't think so. I don't think
    it's going to get to that extreme.
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    But when we are going about
    hacking the human code,
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    I think all bets are off
    in terms of what might come of that.
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    There would still be dangers.
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    And we can look in the past
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    to other elements
    of transformative science
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    and see how they can
    basically go out of control
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    and permeate society.
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    So I'll just give you one example,
    and that is in vitro fertilization.
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    Almost exactly 40 years ago,
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    test tube baby number one
    Louise Brown was born,
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    and that's a great thing,
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    and I think since then
    five million IVF babies have been born,
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    bringing immeasurable happiness.
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    A lot of parents now can love those kids.
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    But if you think about it,
    in four decades,
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    five million babies being born
    from a new technology
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    is pretty remarkable,
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    and the same kind of thing could happen
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    with human genetic modification
    and designer babies.
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    So depending on the decisions
    we make in the next few months,
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    the next year or so,
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    if designer baby number one is born,
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    within a few decades,
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    there could well be millions
    of genetically modified humans.
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    And there's a difference there too,
    because if we, you in the audience, or I,
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    if we decide to have a designer baby,
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    then their children will also
    be genetically modified, and so on,
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    because it's heritable.
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    So that's a big difference.
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    So with all of this in mind,
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    what should we do?
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    There's actually going to be a meeting
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    a month from tomorrow in Washington, D.C.
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    by the US National Academy of Sciences
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    to tackle that exact question.
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    What is the right path forward
    with human genetic modification?
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    I believe at this time
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    we need a moratorium.
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    We have to ban this.
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    We should not allow
    creating genetically modified people,
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    because it's just too dangerous
    and too unpredictable.
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    But there's a lot of people --
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    (Applause)
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    Thanks.
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    (Applause)
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    And let me say, just as a scientist,
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    it's a little bit scary
    for me to say that in public,
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    because science generally doesn't like
    self-regulation and things like that.
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    So I think we need to put a hold on this,
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    but there are many people
    who not only disagree with me,
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    they feel the exact opposite.
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    They're like, step on the gas,
    full speed ahead,
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    let's make designer babies.
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    And so in the meeting in December
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    and other meetings that are likely
    to follow in the next few months,
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    it's very possible
    there may be no moratorium.
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    And I think part
    of the problem that we have
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    is that all of this trend,
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    this revolution in genetic modification
    applying to humans,
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    the public hasn't known about it.
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    Nobody has been saying,
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    look, this is a big deal,
    this is a revolution,
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    and this could affect you
    in very personal ways.
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    And so part of my goal
    is actually to change that
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    and to educate and engage with the public
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    and get you guys talking about this.
  • 16:38 - 16:41
    And so I hope at these meetings
    that there will be a role for the public
  • 16:41 - 16:44
    to bring their voice to bear as well.
  • 16:46 - 16:50
    So if we kind of circle back now
    to 2030 again, that imagined story,
  • 16:51 - 16:54
    and depending on the decisions
    we make, again, today --
  • 16:54 - 16:56
    literally we don't have a lot of time --
  • 16:56 - 16:58
    in the next few months,
    the next year or so,
  • 16:58 - 17:01
    because this technology
    is spreading like wildfire.
  • 17:02 - 17:04
    Let's pretend we're back in that reality.
  • 17:05 - 17:06
    We're at a park,
  • 17:06 - 17:10
    and our kid is swinging on the swing.
  • 17:11 - 17:13
    Is that kid a regular old kid,
  • 17:13 - 17:17
    or did we decide to have a designer baby?
  • 17:17 - 17:20
    And let's say we went
    the sort of traditional route,
  • 17:20 - 17:23
    and there's our kid swinging on the swing,
  • 17:23 - 17:26
    and frankly, they're kind of a mess.
  • 17:26 - 17:28
    Their hair is all over
    the place like mine.
  • 17:28 - 17:30
    They have a stuffy nose.
  • 17:31 - 17:33
    They're not the best student in the world.
  • 17:33 - 17:35
    They're adorable, you love them,
  • 17:35 - 17:37
    but there on the swing next to them,
  • 17:37 - 17:40
    their best friend is a GM kid,
  • 17:40 - 17:43
    and the two of them
    are kind of swinging like this,
  • 17:43 - 17:45
    and you can't help
    but compare them, right?
  • 17:45 - 17:47
    And the GM kid is swinging higher,
  • 17:47 - 17:50
    they look better,
    they're a better student,
  • 17:50 - 17:53
    they don't have that stuffy nose
    you need to wipe.
  • 17:53 - 17:55
    How is that going to make you feel
  • 17:55 - 17:58
    and what decision
    might you make next time?
  • 17:59 - 18:00
    Thank you.
  • 18:00 - 18:06
    (Applause)
Title:
The ethical dilemma of designer babies
Speaker:
Paul Knoepfler
Description:

Creating genetically modified people is no longer a science fiction fantasy; it's a likely future scenario. Biologist Paul Knoepfler estimates that within fifteen years, scientists could use the gene editing technology CRISPR to make certain "upgrades" to human embryos -- from altering physical appearances to eliminating the risk of auto-immune diseases. In this thought-provoking talk, Knoepfler readies us for the coming designer baby revolution and its very personal, and unforeseeable, consequences.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
18:19

English subtitles

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