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Ethics

Megan: Designer Babies

babies

If you had the choice to prevent your future child from being born with certain fatal diseases, would you do it?

What about disabilities?

What about their gender?

What if you could even choose their eye colour?

In-vitro fertilization, the process of fertilizing human eggs outside of the body and then implanting them back into the uterus, is a relatively common procedure which has opened other doors in science, beyond fertilization.

It is possible to test the eggs, while they are outside the body, for certain genetic traits—Things such as genetic diseases, disabilities, gender, and possibly others. Then, depending on the wishes of the parent, eggs can be selectively chosen to be placed back into the uterus to grow into a child. This process is called Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), and it is the root of numerous, and decidedly heated, ethical debates.

The very concept of children who were born due to the selection of certain traits and the elimination of others have been coined as “Designer Babies.” This term has a rather negative connotation, as it suggests a commercial and materialistic view of having children. However, the principle of selecting traits does not have to be “evil.” Like all things, there are two sides to every story.

Going back to the questions I asked at the beginning, I would like to investigate further the issue of disease prevention. PGD could be used to eliminate the eggs with the genetic structure of something such as cystic fibrosis, or a risk for heart disease, or a high chance for cancer. Would it be morally wrong to select the egg without such genetic disorders? Although I understand that for some people, selecting a child based on anything at all would be considered “wrong”, however, when it comes to something which will be harmful to the child, or diseases which will lead to potential or guaranteed death, I would select a healthier egg. Maybe that makes me a bad person, I couldn’t say. But here’s the thing—On one side of my family, the past three generations of woman have all had breast cancer. I have seen someone die from this. I am at high risk. If I was given the chance to eliminate the risk for cancer from my future children, I would not hesitate. I wouldn’t. As stated by Professor Julien Savulescu of Oxford, “Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?”

Yet with diseases, it may be an easier line to draw. What about disabilities? This may not be threatening to a child’s life, yet it could be argued that this lowers their quality of life. And it is here, that I have no idea what I would do in such a situation. Because you see, I would love any child I had, no questions. But at the point when that child is simply a cluster of cells, and I have the opportunity to choose between a perfectly healthy egg and one which has a disability such as Down’s Syndrome, what is the ethical decision?

Here are my thoughts, because honestly, I don’t know for certain, and this nothing more then my tentative speculations. See, once the distinction has been made between two eggs, one as healthy and one with a genetic disorder, it must become extremely difficult to select the egg with the disorder. And why would you? Although it sounds horrible to say, wouldn’t a parent want the healthiest child possible who will have the easiest time to function in society as it today? Yet I also do not think that a child with a disability is any less important; it’s just that if you were given a choice, who could honestly select that egg? And I believe this is one of the larger problems of Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis: Without the choice, many parents would dearly love and be enriched by a child with a disability. However, with that choice, parents who would be perfectly accepting of a disabled child are pressured into choosing a different egg, not because they would not want a disabled child, but because society tends to favour those without disabilities. And imagine a world where everyone made certain selections for their children—If you had a disabled child, people would know that you chose that egg, perfectly knowing that it had a disability. Of course it is not like this today, but in this hypothetical world where every egg is selected based on certain criteria, would there not be even greater distinctions? Would you not be actively choosing a more difficult life for your child?

Gender is another very interesting issue, because if a mother could select the egg with the gender she wanted, would we be faced with a severely imbalanced ratio of men to woman? Would men be favoured and gendercide even more common, or would society balance itself out? In this scenario, I can picture a world with a leaning towards boys, initially, yet I can also imagine this scenario righting itself. With a huge influx of men, as we are seeing in certain countries where boys are favoured, woman may begin to select more baby girls to correct this, as girls would become increasingly necessary for a population wishing to survive. This is assuming, of course, that in this hypothetical universe, everyone has equal access to this process of selection.

And what if we extend beyond diseases, disabilities and gender, to an even more slippery slope? What about appearances? Although there is little accuracy as of today in determining the exact hair colour or eye colour of a child, what if we could tell? What if you were given the choice between selecting a green-eyed baby and a brown-eyed baby? What about taller or shorter? What about red hair, or black hair? It is here that the “Designer” aspect of the term becomes very clear, yet whether or not this is frightening, or a natural part of human evolution, is much divided.

As stated by James Hughes, a transhumanist author;

“It’s inevitable, in the broad context of freedom and choice. And the term “designer babies” is an insult to parents, because it basically says parents don’t have their kids’ best interests at heart.

The only people who are consistent about this are the Catholics.
They say that you have to accept whatever pops out of your procreative unions. But if you think that people have a right to choose how many children they have, or the partners they have them with — “I love you, but you’re just too short, or too ugly” — that’s a procreative choice.

If I’ve got a dozen embryos I could implant, and the ones I want to implant are the green-eyed ones, or the blond-haired ones, that’s an extension of choices we think are perfectly acceptable — and restricting them a violation of our procreative autonomy.”

However, there is the opposite end of this argument. What if everyone begins to choose a certain trait, and a very distinct definition of “beauty” emerges, a superior human?

Imagine a society in which everyone looks the same. Ugliness would not just prevent you from getting a date, but could make you a lesser human. And if everyone looked the same, like a supermodel, what would we be resorted to, in order to stand out in this equally beautiful crowd of people? What would happen to diversity? By not choosing a more beautiful child, would you be setting your child up for failure? These are all questions which concern the very negative aspects of designer babies.

Even further than this, what if we could detect certain personality traits? Would it be morally right to eliminate eggs with a proneness towards violence, and select the ones with the genes to be more intelligent?

What would happen to a society without outliers?

And where does the government lie amongst all of this? What would happen if the world was divided into those who could afford the procedure and those who couldn’t, who were left with the children chance gave them? This creates the potential for a race of super humans in the upper class countries, of beautiful, smarter, faster people, and expanding the divide between first and third world countries. Should there be laws preventing the selection of eggs; is that really anyone’s business except the parent’s?

These are questions I cannot answer, yet they have made me think immensely. As for a final verdict, I unfortunately have none. I can see the benefits of preventing disease, yet I cannot see the benefits of allowing humans to indulge their vanity when it comes to their own children. Equally, I cannot imagine a world without outliers, for it is sometimes these outliers which become the revolutionaries. However, just as unfortunate would be a world with the technology to potentially solve numerous problems, yet kept away out of the fear of change.

In a situation like this, I believe we cannot let ourselves migrate to either extreme. It will be somewhere in the middle where society will find compromise.

Now, imagine a future where selecting the traits of children is widespread, and the questions I have raised will be even more present. Although we may not be faced with these ethical issues immediately, they are approaching, and although uncomfortable, the decisions on where to draw these lines must be made eventually.

As a society, we will have questions to answer.

For further reading on this topic:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/03/designerdebate/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9480372/Genetically-engineering-ethical-babies-is-a-moral-obligation-says-Oxford-professor.html

http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500165_162-4840346.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9480688/How-genetic-screening-could-work.html

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  1. Pingback: Playing God or Frontier of Science? « Philosophy 12 - December 11, 2012

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