Recently, fellow Culture Shock writer Kate Conroy wrote a post about hypothetical “designer babies”—human beings genetically engineered by their parents before being conceived via in vitro fertilization. Currently the genetic testing process is primarily used to ensure that infants from families with histories of genetic diseases are born healthy. However, in vitro fertilization technically also could allow parents to determine their children’s sexes, and as science progresses, the possibility of handpicking individual characteristics—hair and eye color, and even personality traits—becomes more and more feasible each year.
So what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with creating a healthy, attractive, intelligent child? What’s wrong with ensuring that you get the son or daughter you’ve always wanted?
To my way of thinking, a lot of things are wrong. I have to respectfully disagree with Kate’s position. I’m not going to enter the usual moral debate about the disposal of unused embryos; what worries me is the possibility of genetic engineering getting dangerously close to the territory of eugenics. Think Brave New World. I can easily imagine it creating a class divide between those who could afford to ensure that their children were straight-A students/star athletes/musical prodigies/etc. and those who had to, as human beings have done for thousands of years, leave the results of conception to chance.
How would our education system account for both the influx of super-smart kids and the normal range of abilities represented in a typical class? Would more and more students be sent to elite private schools? What would happen to the quality of our public education system? And how would our healthcare and health insurance systems respond to common ailments as diseases became less and less prevalent? Would non-engineered people bear the burden of paying higher hospital bills and insurance copays if a significant portion of the population were not often in need of non-routine medical services?
On an individual level, I wonder about the psychological effect on the children themselves. Babies grow up. They become people with thoughts and feelings and sometimes questionable relationships with their parents. I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if I found out that I was genetically engineered. Would I resent the idea that so many of my traits were handpicked by my parents? Would I have spent even more of my childhood and adolescence worried about living up to their expectations? Would I have less of a sense of agency and independence if I was constantly aware that I had been designed by another human being? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine that the knowledge that I had been a designer baby would do good things for my existential crisis…
Like I said, I don’t necessarily have a problem with parents wanting to ensure that their children don’t suffer from the same diseases and disorders that others in their families have struggled with. But it’s one thing to say that implanting only healthy embryos is okay and something else entirely to discard any that don’t meet a parent’s specific criteria. We obviously don’t yet have the level of control I’ve hypothesized about here, but there are already all kinds of ethical questions surrounding the in vitro process as it is, and those questions will only get more complicated as medical science advances. Although designer babies aren’t a reality yet, the possible consequences of such a trend are worrisome, especially since the United States currently has no official regulations to guard against the possible abuse of genetic testing.
Bottom line: I just don’t think it’s fair to allow people to create “perfect” babies. It’s unfair to society, and it’s ultimately unfair to the children themselves.