Tech by VICE

A Genetic Dating App Is a Horrifying Thing That Shouldn’t Exist

For anyone not white, cis, or male, it’s obvious where all this is going.

by Janus Rose
Dec 9 2019, 6:31pm

Image: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The New Yorker

For marginalized people, the tech world’s constant barrage of “innovations” is getting exhausting. It seems like every week, science and tech pioneers are revealing new projects that pose a clear threat to anyone not white, cisgender, or male—whether it’s porn deepfakes or algorithms that judge womens’ boobs.

Enter Harvard Medical School, where researchers are creating a new dating app that matches people based on their DNA. The goal is to create a system that “screens out matches that would result in a child with an inherited disease,” according to a report aired Sunday night on 60 Minutes.

In other words, it’s a dating app for eugenics—the disturbing ideological practice of systematically discriminating against people based on genetic qualities judged to be undesirable or inferior.

The app is being developed by a team of geneticists led by George Church, who, in the same interview, defended accepting money for his lab donated by convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Church’s lab is most famous for its work on the gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, and its researchers are looking at ways to make humans immune to viruses, reverse the effects of aging, and de-extinct animals. “It’s 7,000 diseases, it’s about 5 percent of the population, [and] about $1 trillion a year worldwide” in medical expenses, Church told 60 Minutes.

But for anyone not white, cis, able-bodied, or male, it’s obvious where all this is going.

Eugenics has long been a fascination of Nazis and white supremacists, who dream of creating a white and genetically “pure” master race. Dystopian sci-fi tales like Gattaca have also warned of the horrifying dangers of organizing society based on the perceived “desirability” (or “undesirability”) of peoples’ genetic code.

For people who exist outside mainstream gender norms, these dangers are very real. Last week, Newsweek reported on a team of researchers at the University of Michigan who are attempting to identify regions of the brain associated with gender dysphoria—the discomfort which occurs when a person’s gender does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Many, but not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria, and it has been used to establish a system of medical gatekeeping that pathologizes trans people and controls access to treatments like hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries. But even if scientists identified some hypothetical trait that causes people to be trans, choosing to “edit out” those traits would be an attempt to effectively erase trans people from existence.

Meanwhile, research into trans medical treatments remains severely underfunded. The federal government is also trying to make it legal for medical providers to refuse to treat trans patients—whether for gender dysphoria or a broken arm.

In other words, these cis researchers, funders, and policymakers seem more interested in “curing” or erasing trans people than finding better and cheaper ways of treating them—or anyone else labeled as falling outside the norm of biologic desirability. Church’s lab, for example, recently received over $100 million for its work on gene-editing.

Church says he is being careful, and claims his lab has appointed a full-time ethicist on its staff to work toward the goal of “genetic equity”—where all people have access to genetic technology, regardless of race or economic status.

But for marginalized people suffering under deeply unequal and discriminatory systems of power, that mission seems dangerously naive. If the people who risk being most harmed by these “innovations” aren’t intimately involved in their development, maybe it’s better to—you know—not make them at all?

Tagged:
gene editing
CRISPR/Cas9
George Church
Harvard Medical School