Science 3 min read

Good Genes Come at a High Price

Screengrab from Gattaca movie trailer. | Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Screengrab from Gattaca movie trailer. | Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Gene therapy implies altering an individual’s genetic information with the goal of improving it. If a person’s genes carry markers for abnormalities or predispose the person to certain diseases, gene editing offers a way to correct such genetic deficiencies. This technology has enormous applications in treating genetic diseases like Sickle Cell, Cystic Fibrosis, and even Cancer, but if access is only available to some, inequality may become a genetic trait.

“Valids” and “In-valids”

Because affected parents can pass on genes that predispose their children to the same diseases, gene therapy will ultimately play a role in his future generations are conceived. Gene editing’s medical applications in treating genetic diseases and reproductive health via IVF allude to a future without disease, where we’ve augmented our biology to the point that everyone is superhuman. Like in the 1997 film Gattaca, gene editing may lead to a future where the technology is used during in vitro fertilization (IVF) to isolate and correct “bad genes” in embryos, and essentially create genetically superior human beings.

But just because technology makes something possible, doesn’t mean that technology automatically makes something a reality. Technology is a resource, and access to resources is usually regulated.

Technically Possible for all, Practically Inaccessible for Most

While current treatments for genetic diseases are limited, they exist. In some countries, however, private care combined with the costs of medication and insurance make available treatments expensive. High costs and long waiting lists are usually a barrier for most, and effectively restrict accessibility to current treatments for genetic diseases. Furthermore, preexisting medical conditions can make finding affordable health insurance difficult, meaning that those who need insurance the most are often deemed too high risk to insure.

Then, there is the question of how a person’s health status can influence their chances of employment. In Gattaca, only genetically enhanced “Valids” are eligible to work for certain companies, or to hold certain jobs.  While most discriminatory policies prohibit employers from hiring or firing based on an employee’s health, employees with preexisting conditions may be viewed by employers as more likely to call in sick, expensive to insure or less productive.


“God Children”

In addition to the external barriers to access, some barriers are self-imposed. Just because a technology has the capacity to save lives or improve humanity overall doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace it.

Culture, religion, and personal ethics also have a role in shaping a person’s views on new technologies. What may be a life-saving treatment for some may be immoral for others. In Gattaca, some parents willfully reject gene editing and IVF for the belief that conception should occur naturally. Called “God Children”, babies born naturally are condemed to “bad genes”, deemed “In-valids” in society and confined to low-wage menial labor.

Programming Inequality

The technologies behind gene editing and IVF present an incredible opportunity for us to become our best selves. But, as Motherboard Editor Kate Lunau writes, if access to such technology is restricted only to some (for economic or cultural barriers) we risk programming inequality to our genes.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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