George Church of Harvard University has been under heavy scrutiny after news broke of a new “DNA Dating App” he has been involved in developing, during a recent interview with 60 minutes. The news has led to a significant backlash from some quarters, including from some within the genomics community, that the app is unethical and represents a form of eugenics.

The simple idea is that the dating app would prevent people matching with others who they are “genetically incompatible” with, to reduce the likelihood (or eliminate the possibility) down the line of them having offspring with serious genetic diseases. Church’s goal with the app is to eliminate genetic diseases from the population by intervening early in the dating process, and make sure that people who share genetic mutations never meet, fall in love, and have children.

The comparison with eugenics has been brought up amidst a backlash from some media and individuals. This controversial topic is one that is becoming increasingly important as our knowledge of genetics and technology increases.

These recent events raise critical questions about the role of genomics in society.

On the one hand, if we have the opportunity to eradicate serious genetic illnesses via the use of this and other similar technologies, do we take it? The eradication of many genetic diseases will undoubtedly reduce a huge amount of pain and suffering, and lead to a dramatic reduction in healthcare costs – among other benefits.

On the other hand, what is the potential social cost of using such technologies? How could they be used to discriminate and marginalize certain groups of people?

The use of technology to reduce the chances of genetic diseases presenting in offspring is not new. IVF has supported parents to have children for decades, and can also be used to screen embryos for signs of disorders. Companies such as 23andMe already provide a health service where you can analyse your genome for over 40 carrier status reports. If such services were more widely used, partners could already use the information to make reproductive decisions – something that is already happening at a small scale.

What’s different here is the development of a technology/interface that intervenes at the very earliest stage of forming relationships – when deciding who to partner with. You simply never meet the people who you’re “genetically incompatible” with. Church isn’t saying that everyone must use the app, but it is an option for those who want to rule out the possibility of having children with a genetic disorder. In the end, it comes down to user preference. Do you want to use the app, or not? Is that the same as eugenics?

After the initial backlash, Church took to the internet to write a FAQ document. He started off by writing “the serious ethical issues posed by genetic technologies remain an important component of my work, as we must balance the needs of those who are suffering directly or indirectly of devastating diseases with the need to ensure that genetic technologies are not misused.”

He does not advocate that everyone uses genetic information to help them find partners, but instead the app only targets people who want this information. He also highlighted the importance of genome privacy, with references to progress in encryption queries and blockchain ledgers, and not sharing user data with other companies or individuals. The users themselves will not have access to their information either and it can only be accessed with a CLIA/CAP-approved service that provides whole-genome information along with physician consultation.

Church also threw out some statistics when asked about the possibility of everyone being “incompatible”, saying that severe disorders affect about 0.6% of live births and everyone is genetically compatible (in this sense) with over 97% of people. He says that even if individuals are genetically tested on the app, it still does “not at all refer to whether individuals have the potential to fall in love and then go on to experience life-long partnerships, so much more than genetic compatibility goes into rewarding partnerships”

He strongly defended his app when asked “Is this Eugenics?” with a “No.”.  He highlighted that the app hopes to provide information and facilitate options for people who are making choices about their families. Church says his app would be a “complementary” service to genetic counselling services, who already provide people with information about their genetic status.

Church said his inspiration for the app was a Jewish group in Brooklyn, Dor Yeshorim, which tests teenagers in Orthodox communities for diseases such as Tay-Sachs (a fatal disorder common among some Jewish groups leading to a fatal neurodegenerative disorder), and arranges marriages based on this information.

There still appears to be no widespread agreement on whether this DNA dating app represents a form of eugenics, although most of the noise is being made by those who think it is. What recent events have done – and we at Front Line Genomics welcome this –  is to trigger an important debate about how we might use genomics to make decisions about partnering and reproduction, whether there is a cost to the use of such technology, and – if there is a cost – whether we’re prepared to pay it.