CRISPR-Babies in the News

It’s been a week of fast and furious headlines as the news of the first “CRISPR babies” spreads. Scientists still have to fact-check the claims and begin assessing the costs and benefits of what appears to be the first delivery of human baby whose embryo was modified using the gene-editing technique CRISPR.

As ANYA’s filmmakers (an anthropologist and a documentarian), it’s fascinating to watch how news of the claims and reactions appear across various media outlets. While it merits a more systematic discourse analysis that includes more extreme coverage, you can get a sense just by looking at the mainstream headlines and images that we’ve shared in this blog.

Compare the headlines and images below. Both are sensational and attention grabbing, using the flash button term “CRISPR babies” or “CRISPR’d babies.” The right image is from the original announcement in the world’s longest running technology magazine, MIT Technology Review. The left image is from a follow-up article two days later in the popular science magazine, WIRED.

Both magazines cater to science-curious audiences. MIT Technology Review is more for academics and industry. Wired is for a broader public. This is reflected in the chosen images: a microscope image from the journal Nature of human embryos vs. a cartoon drawing of babies on a DNA ladder.

The tone of the articles also varies.

MIT Technology Review’s Antonio Regalado greets the news with a mix of surprise, optimism, and caution.

“It was the invention of a powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR, which is cheap and easy to deploy, that made the birth of humans genetically modified in an in vitro fertilization (IVF) center a theoretical possibility. Now, it appears it may already be happening.

[…] The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine that eliminates genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics.” 

Wired’s Megan Molteni’s response betrays more alarm.

“We said “don’t freak out,” when scientists first used Crispr to edit DNA in non-viable human embryos. When they tried it in embryos that could theoretically produce babies, we said “don’t panic.” Many years and years of boring bench science remain before anyone could even think about putting it near a woman’s uterus. Well, we might have been wrong. Permission to push the panic button granted.”

It will be interesting to see how the scientific community proceeds and if the public ultimately panics, embraces the technological advance, or meets the headlines with a collective shrug as we move on to the next item in the news cycle.

Read more of our thoughts in the essay “ANYA & Gene-Editing.”

*Carylanna Taylor, PhD is an anthropologist and filmmaker. She and documentarian, Jacob Okada, created the feature film ANYA (2019).

jacob okada