Should Parents Who Refuse to Edit Their Babies' Genes Be Punished?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, advances in biotechnology could make this a pressing question in the near future—and under certain conditions, this reader’s answer is yes:

My gut instinct is that I would lean towards punishment if the parents were to have the fetus tested for genetic abnormalities and diseases and the test came back positive, but the parents still refused to consider gene editing.  It’s knowingly bringing preventable suffering into the world. If the attendant medical procedures were as cheap and safe as a course of antibiotics, would it be unethical to deny a potential human gene editing to avert a serious disease?

Yes, I believe so.

Another reader used a fanciful thought-experiment to reach a similar conclusion:

Let us imagine two prospective parents, set A, each carriers of the Tay-Sachs gene. They have a one-in-four chance of passing two copies of the gene onto a child. Doing so is a death sentence for the child by its eighth birthday.

Now imagine two other prospective parents, set B. These parents decide that on their child’s eighth birthday, they will sit with the child and several friends for a nice game of Russian roulette. The only difference between A and B is that with most handguns, B has given its child a slightly better chance of survival.

I use the graphic analogy to drive home the essential point: Parents who knowingly risk passing on bad genes to a child can cause real harm. They are gambling with the life of another human being. In any other context, such behavior would be instantly recognized as abuse and protective state intervention would be not only defensible but also obligatory. The fancy phrases about dignity and fundamental liberty and so forth are what Peter Singer called “the last resource of those who have run out of arguments.”

On the other hand, the next reader supports penalties for parents who refuse medical interventions, yet does not believe similar penalties will, or should, be applied to parents who refuse gene-editing:

It is my understanding that the majority, if not all, of the cases pursued against parents for not obtaining medical interventions for their children are in cases where there is a clear and immediate danger to the child’s life and health, along with a clear and immediate medical intervention for the child's condition. Such medical interventions must not only have a high probability of success, but also have a high probability of not causing secondary conditions worse than the treated disease or condition itself.

In all cases I can think of, gene editing is not and will not be like this. Gene editing is more like vaccination, and prosecutions of parents who refuse to vaccinate almost never occur. In some respects the case for prosecutions of anti–gene-editors would be even weaker than it is for “anti-vaxxers.”