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A Word from Rabbi Schulman - 8/4/17

The most significant news of this week is not the firing of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director. Nor is it the president’s so-called “joking” suggestion to law enforcement officers that they not be so gentle with criminal suspects. It is not even the latest revelation that Donald Trump was involved in the misinformation his son, Donald Jr., initially gave about his June 2016 meeting with Russian representatives.

Instead, by far the most important and potentially life-changing news came on Wednesday when scientists from the Oregon Health and Science University published their success in genetically modifying the embryo of a human.It is the first time in human history that scientists have demonstrated a replicable method for changing the human genome while in utero.

Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who helped discover the gene-editing method used, called CRISPR-Ca9, said “It feels a bit like a ‘one small step for (hu)mans, one giant leap for (hu)mankind’ moment,”

The New York Times noted that this process could potentially “apply to any of more than 10,000 conditions caused by specific inherited mutations. Researchers and experts said those might include breast and ovarian cancer linked to BRCA mutations, as well as diseases like Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs, beta thalassemia, and even sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis or some cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s.”

There is an understandable desire to laud this scientific breakthrough for its potential to eradicate life threatening conditions. We may be on the threshold of eliminating diseases that have ravaged humanity since the beginning of time.

However, like the unlocking of the atom’s nucleus, there is also the potential for catastrophic harm. In the wrong hands, at some future point scientists could use this technology to breed only ‘desirable’ human beings and eliminate those deemed unworthy. Eugenics is an evil the Jewish people know firsthand from the Holocaust.

I do not claim to have a firm grasp of the ethical implications of this week’s breakthrough. I only know that this momentous achievement is one that not only scientists and ethicists should grapple with, but all of us as well.

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