Biotech and repugnance

Re: MIT Technology Review: China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced.

Imagine there was a vaccine that pregnant women could get that would make their babies immune to HIV/AIDS, make their brains more resilient to suffering a stroke, and make it easier for them to learn and form memories.

We would rightfully regard someone who reacted with “visceral repulsion and sadness” to healthy, happy twin baby girls whose mother received this vaccine as, well, viscerally repulsive and sad. He’d be lumped in with hardcore anti-vaxxers and we’d all move on.

We would call for steps to make this vaccine universally available, but wouldn’t want it banned because not everyone would have access—after all, the distributional effects of new technology are something we can usually address. Almost all (all?) technology becomes democratized over time. It’s why Jeff Bezos’ phone is probably not that much better than yours, if it’s better at all.

Pregnant women (and hopeful dads) already turn their lives upside down—plug their nose and gulp down sardines, avoid litter boxes and cold cuts, suffer caffeine headaches, play classical music they’d never have listened to otherwise, and dutifully swallow supplements every morning for just a chance at just some of these benefits for their children. Recommendations suggest that women (and some suggest men, too) trying to conceive not drink at all to improve the chances of any child conceived. In other words, we’re OK with recommending putting aside our normal wants and even our normal icks for this stuff.

So why are we so OK with so many people looking at these two (from all appearances so far) healthy, happy baby girls with visceral revulsion and sadness? Why are we willing to run away from the technology that appears to have made this happen? Why are we willing to condemn babies to unnecessary vulnerability and hardship if we could make their lives better? Why aren’t we willing to sacrifice our feelings of comfort and put up with some “ick” in this case?

I wish I had an answer for these questions. I’m at a loss. Repugnance is a strange thing.