Tailor-Made Children: Ethics of Genetic Engineering

By Jabri Gistand

View the History of Human Genetic Engineering Timeline created by Jabri Gistand

In the near future, we may no longer have to subject our children to the random flurry of the genetic lottery. In fact, thanks to the fascinating advances of modern science, people today can cherry pick certain biological traits for their potential future offspring. If the thought of selecting your child’s eye color, hair color, height, weight, or even skin tone (among other things), has crossed your mind, then perhaps conceiving a genetically engineered child, or “designer baby” is the choice for you.

But first, some history. Doctors have been helping parents manipulate their children’s biological make-up since the late seventies with a process known as in vitro fertilization (IVF), and another known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). These two procedures together are used to screen embryos for genetic disorders, such as Down Syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, and/or hemophilia A for example. Another common use of IVF and PGD is determining a child’s sex, often in order to prevent sex-specific disorders. These processes were only the beginning of genetic engineering.

Back in June 2000, a collective of scientist from the Human Genome Project announced that they had created a working draft of the human genome, the expansive and complicated code that makes up human DNA. Three years later those same scientist revealed that they had replicated a sequence of said DNA with a reported 99.99% accuracy. The secrets, and full potential of the human genome have yet to be tapped, but with another method known as germline gene therapy, the possibility of adding whatever traits we may desire to our children could become real.

This potential reality is embraced by men like ethicist/author Ronald M. Green, and writer Paul Waldman. Each of them have penned essays talking about the advantages of genetic engineering, claiming (among other things) that we could reduce the likelihood of our children becoming obese and reiterating the idea of treating genetic diseases before birth, respectively.

But besides these very practical applications of genetic engineering, stands an important claim being made by other men like Green and Waldman. The claim that we as a people have a responsibility to our children to modify and improve them. Alex Newman (writer for radical right-wing magazine The New American) writes of Oxford University professor and editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Julian Savulescu. In his article Newman explores Savulescu’s belief that since we have the technology to pick and choose the traits of our children we should. Savulescu argues that, given all the genetic information we have on our offspring, not doing everything we can to eliminate undesirable traits or “personality flaws” in their genes would be a disservice to them, and that we would fail them as parents.

Savulescu’s brand of ethics, however, is less than popular, both amongst ethicists like himself, and the general public. Newman goes about comparing Savulescu’s beliefs to eugenics and likening his thought process to that of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, and, everyone’s most extreme example, Adolf Hitler. These comparisons though, are perhaps unnecessary, as Savulescu has proven to be an extreme individual in his own right. Coming under fire for defending what was essentially a pro-infanticide article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Savulescu is seen by some as nothing more than an out-of-control madman, and everything but an actual ethicist.

Although even without Savulescu’s controversial support, backers of genetic engineering don’t look all that strong as a group. In fact, the opposition to genetic engineering would seem to outnumber them. Green mentions in his article that people fear the potential consequences of modifying children more than they might appreciate the benefits. These fears are echoed when he uses the film Gattaca as an example of what some picture when they imagine a future where genetic engineering is embraced. In the film there exist two segments of the population. Parents who engineer their children to be as perfect as their biology allows, and the minority of parents who decide to give natural birth to unaltered children, possibly subjecting to become members of a “despised underclass”. Green also summarizes four worries when it comes to genetic engineering. 1) That parents will stop loving their children unconditionally and instead only raise them with perfectionist mentalities. 2) That children won’t be able to claim that their accomplishments or positive attributes are truly their own. 3) That a social divide will be created between engineered humans and non-engineered humans (e.g. Gattaca) and 4) The dangerous religious aspect. The idea of “Playing God” is one looked down upon. Green reveals that when he asked his students whether they supported genetic engineering, that “more than 80% said no,” and that apparently public opinion polls lean against the idea as well.

One clear incident to support the negative public opinion of genetic engineering is one dating back to early 2009. A fertility clinic in Los Angeles offered the selection of hair and eye color, but retracted the offer in the face of public backlash.

Despite all this, Green still advocates for the use of genetic engineering, believing it would do more good for the human race, than harm. There are a number of people who disagree with Green of course. People like Richard Hayes for example. Hayes is the executive director for the Center For Genetics and Society and wrote an opinion piece in direct opposition to Green on the subject. Hayes admits that while genetic engineering could very well help prevent and circumvent disease and sickness, he believes the technology could easily be misapplied and that it would eventually only serve to “undermine the foundations of civil and human rights”. Hayes states in his article that “nearly 40 countries — including Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, and South Africa — have adopted socially responsible policies regulating the new human genetic technologies.” The survey he cites for this information also states, however, that “79% of countries have still not taken action to ban the creation of “designer babies” suggesting that this whole issue isn’t exactly a high-priority concern internationally speaking.

Ultimately, while the concept of genetic engineering is an intriguing one (to say the least), it’s future isn’t crystal clear. There is a chance that “designer babies” will break somewhat into the mainstream consciousness and practice, but not for quite some time. At least not until the majority of Americans at least are ready for it. Until then, proponents of genetic engineering will have to settle for the few things they can achieve now, while the rest of us raise the children our genes naturally give us.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Vivian Bossieux-Skinner says:

    Your article and topic are super interesting. Do you think that creating these babies could in fact create a more divided community? It seems this might lead to the poor becoming more poor since the rich could essentially get rid of hereditary diseases and thus spend less on healthcare.

  2. This was a very interesting piece. I like the different view points you included, it answered a lot of my initial questions. When genetic engineering takes place is there an ability to mess with their skills or peronality? If yes, wouldn’t that create an even bigger social divide almost like programmed people? Also playing off of vivans comment, which raises a very intriguing question, could it become affordable for those in poverty? Because she has a valid point that it won’t just be a social divide of engineered and non-engineered people but it it create an even bigger social and economic problem than we already have.

  3. mishabrooks says:

    That’s an interesting idea. The socio-economics of bioethics would be a topic worth diving into. I think that its important to also recognize that diseases will change with the human race, and perhaps new, harmful disease will seize hold of our gene-altering society. Who knows the real health risks of such procedures?

  4. Although I think that having a “designer baby” is too closely related to the eugenics movement to be ethical, I feel like we may need to speed up human evolution as technology grows at rapid rates but humans stay the same. Also I feel like people are going to be designing super people soon. I also like Misha’s comments about new diseases, I think that there would be a lot more diseases and mutations.

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