Imagine a world in which humans’ traits are molded and fine-tuned to reach a standard of ultimate perfection. Characteristics such as skin, hair, eye color and even intelligence, are quantified, and embryos grown in labs are subject to infinite alterations of their genes to dictate their features, physical and other characteristics. Parents may peruse through numerous descriptions of potential children, scanning for favorable traits and discarding any children with genetically inferior characteristics. While such a scenario has not yet occurred, it is a possibility drawing ever-closer in our technologically advancing world. For this reason, questions surrounding the ethics of “designer babies” must be addressed now, as we inch towards a reality in which flawlessness is ordinary and imperfections are substandard.
The discussion around “test tube babies” was first catalyzed in 1988 with Lesley and John Brown. The couple decided to pursue in-vitro fertilization (IVF) after finding themselves unable to naturally conceive a child. IVF calls for the combination of the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg in a petri dish; the newly formed embryo is then implanted into the mother’s womb. The Browns’ decision to undergo IVF sparked broad controversy, as this procedure brought about the frenzy of millions of people considering the possible imbalance in the natural order that IVF might cause.
Following this advancement, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) began to develop. This technology enabled prospective parents with harmful diseases in their family histories such as cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs or Down syndrome to exercise some influence over their offspring’s genes. The process is performed by identifying a lab-created embryo’s probability of having a serious disease and then discarding those with high probabilities of said diseases. Assuming the embryo has acceptable genes, it is implanted into the mother’s uterus.
Genetic modification continues to take large strides, and it shows little signs of slowing. In 2012, the gene-modification technique CRISPR-Cas9 was employed on unviable human embryos. This method employs natural enzymes, using them to single out genes and cut them with meticulous precision. In a team forefronted by American biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a mutated gene which produces thickened heart muscles, was removed using the enzyme Cas9. If this embryo would have been implanted into a womb, the resulting human being would have continually impacted a family’s cellular lineage.
One thing is clear - the ethics surrounding this topic are extremely complex. For the most part, ethicists are divided into two schools of thought. One considers future reliance on gene modification a positive development for society, as it can terminate life-threatening diseases. Such ethicists draw comparisons to measles and polio vaccinations, which are beneficial to the recipient’s health but are certainly not considered to be thwarting the natural world.
The second, more reasonable argument recognizes that initially harmless gene modification may morph into attempts to create intellectually and physically superior humans. In a future where gene modification is possible, it would likely only be available to the very wealthy. This poses further socio-economic problems, potentially broadening the disconnect between the rich and the poor, decreasing social mobility.
The shaky morals of genetic modification are exemplified by its negative reception by so many. The majority of countries have not yet authorized or legislated genetic modification. Within the medical community, the usage of CRISPR-Cas9 is dismissed on principle. Scientists have predicted that gene modifications to service lower health risks by CRISPR-Cas9 are conducive to enhancements unrelated to health concerns. “[Gene-editing] is unavoidably in our future, and I believe that it will become one of the central foci of our social debates later in this century and in the century beyond,” said bioethicist Ronald Green. Green has also warned that gene-editing may produce “serious errors and health problems as unknown genetic side effects in ‘edited’ children and populations begin to manifest themselves.”
These issues are avoidable through the rejection of gene editing in favor of safer, less threatening methods of genetic modification. For example, embryo selection allows for similar parental influence over traits without the same exorbitant cost and moral slippery-slope of gene editing. Eventually, PGD may become a feasible method for determining a child’s inherited traits. Bioethicist and Stanford University professor Henry Greely elaborates on this, as he explains, “Egg harvesting is unpleasant and risky and doesn’t give you that many eggs. But that will change, thanks to developments that will make human eggs much more abundant and conveniently available, coupled to the possibility of screening their genomes quickly and cheaply.”
In fact, much of the information such measures offer may be unhelpful. With oversimplified ideas about genes abound, many fail to recognize other factors that bear influence over one’s luck, or lack thereof, with their health. This oversimplification is epitomized in common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and types of cancer, as they are all connected to numerous genes and are heavily impacted by environmental factors. Characteristics such as personality and intelligence are still quite under-researched; scientists do not yet entirely understand the role of genes in these traits.
Genetic data is not as reliable a determinant of our characteristics and health as we might like it to be.,“I’ve had my genome sequenced on the cheap, and it doesn’t tell me very much. We’ve got to get away from the idea that your DNA is your destiny,” acknowledges Ewan Birney, the director of the European Bioinformatics Institute.
Ultimately, an industry centered around genetic modification can be maintained only if there are willing participants. If the majority of individuals are informed on the consequences of such technology but choose not engage with it, the industry cannot be sustained. “Where there is a serious problem, such as a deadly condition, or an existing obstacle, such as infertility, I would not be surprised to see people take advantage of technologies such as embryo selection. But we already have evidence that people do not flock to technologies when they can conceive without assistance,” said R. Alta Charo, a law professor and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin. The appeal of embryo selection is also significantly lessened due to the lack of scientists’ preciseness in regards to selecting desirable traits.
In a situation where an industry revolving around designer babies does develop, strict boundaries will have to be established concerning personal ethics and the role of the government. While personal ethics may drive individuals to seek out genetic modifications of prospective children, the government must withhold the authority to encourage or withdraw technology. Through this approach, a balance can be struck where the government fulfills the best interests of the majority of its people, while personal liberties are still granted.
Human beings are characteristically flawed. The issues that arise when we try to overcome a characteristic which has shaped human behavior, accomplishment and, ultimately, the entirety of civilization, are vast and potentially destructive.