Designer Babies

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Parents should not be able to genetically engineer “designer babies” for a number or reasons

Scientific issues

The most important concern, of course, is the children who would be engineered. We don’t know the side effects of genetic engineering of humans. We might change one trait, and it could easily screw something else up. We wouldn’t subject a child to drug testing just so he could have the same color eyes as his parents, not knowing how those drugs might affect him. Similarly, we should not experiment on unborn children.

One might say it’s ok to engineer out disease. Maybe it’s even acceptable to choose physical traits. But what if people start trying to create bionic children? For example, somebody trying to increase oxygenation of the blood so their children will be better athletes. What if that change causes early lung or heart failure? Is that a fair trade-off? Is that a decision parents should be allowed to make for their children?

Practical issues

Perhaps the most pressing practical concern is that some societies will skew the gender balance. This fear is especially pertinent in China and India, where the effect will be magnified because of the sizes of those populations. Will their governments stop them any more than they do today? If not, will the rest of the world have to stop them? Would we be able to?

After all, a radically skewed gender ratio could lead to war, or the breeding out of existence of certain races. The competition over females would be a serious problem in those areas. Anecdotally, I’ve heard it said that where the ratio of men to women has become as skewed as 80/20, the men have imported sex slaves in order to quell competition between the males.

Some people, of course, are disgusting. What if there was a rock star who thinks it’d be cool to have an albino child, who then has to live life with sunburns? Would we be able to stop them from flying to another country to get that done, even if domestic laws prohibit it?

Or more controversially, what if two gay fathers choose to have a gay son? He is probably going to face discrimination and pain. Normally, he could just blame society. If his parents chose that for him, however, he would be able to blame them. Is that healthy for families? Certainly we could not prohibit parents from choosing to have children that will face hardships any more than we can now. But should we allow parents whose children would not otherwise face a hardship to affirmatively choose to put the child through an unnecessary hardship?

Flipping the situation of a child blaming his parents for choosing an undesirable characteristic is a situation where a parent chose not to eradicate an undesirable characteristic. Either way, the child will be able to blame his parents for something that, today, is out of their hands. That extra tension in families is not healthy, all else being equal.

One has to wonder about the parents that would engineer their children. If you think you’ll love a child more simply because it has certain physical characteristics, you’re probably not fit to be a parent.

Finally, what will happen if the engineering goes wrong? What if the baby turns out deformed or dies? We will have to deal with thorny abortion issues, and may have a rash of un-adoptable children. Will there be lawsuits when it doesn’t go right? All of these practical problems have far more implications than can be explored in this space. But suffice it to say they’re very difficult.

Moral and Political Issues

The choices people would make in selecting traits for their child would become normative. There would be a devaluation of those traits that would likely not be chosen, such as retardation, susceptibility to disease, or homosexuality. Would it be any more right to eradicate those traits before birth than by genocide? Genetic engineering is basically eugenics. Holmes’ “three generations of imbeciles is enough” comment is now a widely reviled. And nobody needs to remind us that the Holocaust was not good.

If we start down the path of genetic engineering by saying it’s ok to eradicate disease, where do we stop? Who gets to decide? Is homosexuality a disease? Left-handedness? Those with those traits will be marginalized. Or will at the very least feel inferior.

It would create an underclass of those who still have the “bad” traits. Isn’t diversity a good thing? Something to value? Or is that just lip service since we currently have diversity? Would we really, deep down, rather eradicate it if we could? I hope not.

We are just now coming to the point where we don’t judge people based on things they can’t change. If they could have changed those things (or, rather, their parents) will we find it more justifiable to discriminate based on those traits? Will we undo the progress we’ve made?

What if we could select for intelligence? We’d really have the beginnings of a master race. At that point, we might as well just let rich people buy their way into Harvard, because it’ll have the same effect.

People should be allowed to genetically engineer their babies as they see fit

Scientific issues

First, this will be a safe procedure. Nobody would actually “test” this on children. We’d perfect it in pigs and chimps and other genetically similar organisms before even trying it on children. So we’re not going to end up with wild defects as a result of this. We’re not mad scientists.

Even if it were risky, we do risky procedures for good reasons all the time. We would sign a child up for drug experimentation if it was his only shot at being cured of a disease. Similarly, if genetic engineering is his best chance, it is a risk worth taking.

And since most people would agree that its ok to engineer to prevent horrible disease, why draw the line there? There is no logical breaking point.

Moral/political issues

It’s most likely the religious right that’s against this. But I would ask if it’s really a demonstration of Jesus’ love to allow a child to be born with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva so that they live for 5 years, then turn to stone, then die? Is it loving to allow that even if we can stop it using genetic engineering?

Obviously the life of the child is of paramount concern. It seems easy to say a child would prefer not to be born with a debilitating disease. Going further, is it likely the child would have a strong preference to have been born short or tall? Dark skinned or light skinned? Blue eyed or brown eyed? Perhaps. But wouldn’t the parent know better than anyone how those characteristics might affect the child, and therefore which the child would likely pick? A parent may know that blond haired people are discriminated against in their village. So they might make sure not to have a blond baby. I would think the baby would appreciate that. It seems illogical to argue the baby would prefer the discrimination that would result from being left with the undesirable trait. Granted, it would be better to just eradicate the discrimination. But short of that, is it really fair to doom the child to be the one to fight through discrimination if it can be avoided before birth?

It is true that some might take genetic engineering beyond matters of mere harmless preference and do things to hurt the child. But the slippery slope is not an argument. It’s an observation of what sometimes happens. There is no reason we cannot just stop the slope when we’ve decided where it ought to stop. It might not be easy, but it’s possible.

Choosing some traits over others is not eugenics. The harm with eugenics was the sterilization of people to prevent them from having the choice to reproduce. Here, genetic engineering is expanding choice. People that normally couldn’t reproduce in their own likeness are being given that opportunity.

It’s insulting to compare the purposeful destruction of a race of people with a desire to have a baby with certain traits. It’s not done out of a hatred for a particular race, but rather as a simple matter of preference. It’s disrespectful and makes light of what the victims of eugenic programs went through to compare it to this.

It may be true that rich people will be able to buy benefits for their children via genetic engineering that others won’t get. But what’s wrong with that? How is that any different from the benefits they currently buy for their children? They can pass down money, educational opportunities, good looks, good brains...what’s the difference in also passing down specific traits that the parents don’t have? A rich person could purposely marry a perfect mate so as to increase the likelihood of their children being more perfect. What would be the difference with allowing people to guarantee that extra level of “perfection” via genetic engineering?

The argument that we are basically aborting a disabled fetus in favor of a more “perfect” one is a straw man. It’s about whether the disabled kid would rather be born NOT disabled. Genetic engineering enables parents to choose to give their children a healthier, easier life.

Practical issues

If we allow the rich to spend their money perfecting the technology, even if we don’t agree with the uses they make of it, the technology will fall in price and become widely available. The poor will then be able to afford basic procedures, such as screening out disease. Genetic engineering isn’t really as great a revolution as people make it out to be. People always subconsciously, if not consciously, try to choose how their children will look. It’s part of what we all look for in a mate. We are attracted to people we know will allow our children to be successful and reproduce. All genetic engineering does is decrease the chances it won’t turn out how we thought. I find it difficult to understand who leaving this to chance, rather than allowing us to get what we’d prefer, is any more moral. Genetic engineering is even less of a revolution compared to adoption. When people adopt children, they often choose children with certain health histories, nationalities, genders, and physical characteristics. In fact, people would be dissuaded from adopting if they were forced to pick a child at random who might be disabled or of a different race. Genetic engineering offers no more choice than is available to an adoptive parent with the resources to search out a child with those same characteristics. It is not so radical when viewed in this light. To say that a person is not fit to be a parent simply because they might prefer blue eyes over green is ridiculous. All people, whether or not they admit it, think some people are better looking than others. This acknowledgement of differing levels of beauty happens with one’s own children too. You might not love a particular child more because it has whatever characteristics you believe to be beautiful. A good parent certainly would not wish the child hadn’t been born simply because the eyes are the wrong color. But all else being equal, why not let parents choose the eye color or height they like? What is wrong with exercising that choice? As crass as it might be to say so, genetic engineering might lessen the need and desire for abortions. If a parent could just fix whatever the problem is with a child such as a debilitating disease, they wouldn’t feel the need to terminate that pregnancy. The doomsday scenario envisioned by opponents is that we will eradicate diversity. First, if we really want to prevent that, we can. But even if we do choose to have no more sick, tall, blonde-haired children, why is that a problem? If that’s what people want, why not let them have it? Is there something intrinsically desirable about blonde hair? If not, and people don’t like it, we might as well do away with it. And if we change our minds, presumably we can just turn those genes back on someday if blonde hair comes back in vogue.