Gene Editing: Then and Now…

With the advent of CRISPR—a new, relatively simple-to-use gene-editing technology—it seemed like only a matter of time before the births of the first genetically edited children. And in November 2018, He Jiankui—a Chinese scientist—announced that two such children had been born. The unsanctioned use of this technology was in violation of Chinese law, as well as ethics and international standards around genetic modification. The scientist and his collaborators now face a combination of prison sentences, fines, and limits on their research activities that ban them from working with human reproductive technologies, as well as applying for research funding.
Outcry about the use of genetic modification in China recall the longstanding concerns of feminist activists about the potentially troublesome uses of reproductive and genetic technologies. Since the birth of the so-called “test-tube baby” in 1978, feminists have been articulating the need for caution regarding these technologies that have implications for future generations, and for which the consequences are still unknown.

An image by Adele Aldridge on the cover of the January 1988 edition of the Alberta Status of Women Action Committee Newsletter

Much of the historical opposition to reproductive and genetic technologies in the Canadian context focused on the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies. In the 1980s, the Canadian Coalition on New Reproductive Technologies (p.2), led by sociologist Margrit Eichler, lobbied for a Royal Commission to study the new technologies, and to make recommendations about how governments should proceed. The Royal Commission was established in December 1989. And although its founding, organization, and activities would prove to be controversial, the Royal Commission’s 1993 report provided a relatively comprehensive framework for the governance of reproductive technologies in Canada.

Feminist organizations contributed substantially to the Commission’s consultations. The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women created a resource kit and research tool (p.8) to help interested organizations engage in relevant research and advocacy. Briefs from the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and others provided the Royal Commission with strong critiques of the technologies they were studying. At the same time, edited collections like Christine Overall’s The Future of Reproduction (release announcement p.19) and Gwynne Basen, Margrit Eichler, and Abby Lippman’s Misconceptions: The Social Construction of Choice and the New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies (release announcement p.10), brought together feminist scholars and activists to raise concerns about both the use of the technologies and the Commission itself.

Many of the critiques focused on the potential use of genetic technologies to purposely manufacture or eliminate specific genetic traits in humans. In addition to the ways that this sort of genetic modification might undermine the rights and experiences of people with disabilities, there were worries about the unknown futures that such changes might bring.

In their brief to the the Royal Commission (p.36), the National Action Committee on the Status of Women stated to this end that:

“In genetic technologies we are attempting to change genetic characteristics without any knowledge of what such manipulations will ultimately bring about. This is despite the fact that we have learned from agriculture that many such manipulations have had disastrous effects (vulnerable strains fo grain, poisonous potatoes, pigs with rickets). As we are moving towards a greater understanding of and respect for the integrity and interconnectedness of the ecosystem, we are moving in the opposite direction with respect to reproductive technologies, ignoring the integrity and interconnectedness of our bodies themselves.”

The use of reproductive technologies in Canada has, as elsewhere has enabled a wide range of people to build their families, and to have children that might not otherwise have been born.

Still, as new technologies like CRISPR and others continue to emerge, the warnings of feminists from the 1970s onward—about moving too fast, without sufficient evidence of safety, and in ways that might harm already-marginalized groups—continue to resonate.

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