Genetically engineered, designer infants are no longer science fiction
By Brittney MacDonald, Staff Writer
As a speculative fiction writer, one of my favourite genres of film is science fiction. For those of you who haven’t seen the 1997 film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Jude Law, it is a dystopian tale about a society that has flourished on the idea that children can be made genetically superior by being designed pre-insemination. In the film the practice had advanced so far that there was an evident prejudice against anyone who had been conceived naturally. As much as I love this movie, it displays a very disturbing message about humanity’s scientific obsession with physiological perfection.
Well I am here now to say that fearful perfection that was displayed in this movie is no longer a fiction, but a reality.
A new procedure within the field of reproductive sciences known as Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) allows scientists to test embryos before implantation for hereditary diseases such as some forms of cancer, Huntington’s, and Down syndrome. If it becomes widely popular, it could mean the elimination of one-gene genetic disorders within the next few decades.
Genetically, recessive genes can wreak all sorts of havoc on parents hoping to produce happy, healthy children. Certain mutations can result in harmless traits such as red hair or blues eyes—while less harmless ones could mean birth defects or even early-onset Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, because the genes are recessive both parents could be completely unaware that they run the risk of passing these genetic conditions on, and even if they know there used to be no way of determining if a potential child would be affected.
Dr. Mark Hughes, who originally pioneered the PGD process in his lab Genesis Genetics, told Sixty Minutes that the PGD screening can reduce the possibility of a couple passing on a potentially dangerous mutation, in the case of a particular breast-cancer causing gene, from “50/50, to less than one per cent.”
Now I acknowledge all this, and I am very excited by the possibility that this technology is present. But I can’t help but consider the metaphorical elephant in the room: this technology, as well as other technologies like it that are either currently in practice or in development, house a potential danger. Genes and DNA hold the very essence of what makes us, meaning that this technology doesn’t just affect potentially hazardous gene mutations, but also things as simple as body morphology and hair colour. Essentially, parents could “design” the perfect child—determine whether the infant would be born male or female, tall or short—before insemination.
Here lies the ethical dilemma. Should we as a species allow such a technology, to—for lack of a better term—“play god?”
The fear that the human preoccupation with genetic perfection would result in our own destruction is the long-standing theme in science fiction. We see it in works such as Gattaca, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. All these works of fiction display the same phobia, that in manipulating our own genetic code, we run the risk of losing our identity, individuality, and agency.
Before you allow yourself to believe that altering a few DNA strands is nowhere near genetically fabricating the perfect human being from the ground up, you might want to consider that the use of a similar technology has already been patented to do just that.
Genepeeks uses a digital medium to predict potential genetic codes based on saliva samples, meaning they don’t even require the actual embryo before determining what a potential child’s genetic structure may be. Co-owner Lee Silver claims that their simulation software could be used to determine “other traits” including “eye and hair colour” and the potential child’s approximated level of “social intelligence.” Silver is so convinced of the consumerist potential of their technology that he even included non-medicinal or cosmetic/aesthetic applications while writing the Genepeeks patent. Currently Genepeeks and Genesis Genetics are restricting the use of these technologies to screen for hazardous mutations and paediatric disease, but both Silver and Hughes admit that the only thing stopping them from allowing the use of their technologies for superficial or aesthetic eugenics is their own personal and ethical boundaries.
Legally speaking, the field of reproduction genetics is so new that no law has been passed, in any country, which can limit its potential to medical application specifically. This implies that should any of these doctors or scientists decide that their ethical boundaries do not limit the use of PGD, digital simulation or other similar technologies to disease and disorder prevention, there is nothing stopping them from applying it to selective, aesthetic gene manipulation.
We as a society must consider where the line is in all of this. If we allow such technologies to help us rid our population of dangerous hereditary genetic disorders, should we also use it to ensure physically superior offspring?
Psychologically speaking, human society has been socialized to value the same traits and features. What we determine to be physically beautiful in this day and age has very little to do with what’s practical. Large breasts and a small waist could result in future disfigurement as we age, but it’s still seen as more desirable than a well-proportioned torso. Similarly, in men we desire defined muscle tone that can often be unhealthy to achieve, because it requires dehydration or a restrictive diet. What I’m getting at is that if we agree to allow parents to pre-determine their offspring’s physical traits, we run the risk of eliminating individuality, as well as the slow-moving process of evolution.
We may like to think of ourselves as at the peak of the human evolutionary development, but in truth there’s no real way to determine that. By process of natural selection, we are continually evolving dependant on our environment. Select traits that are not considered beautiful may be necessary for our future survival. Now that may sound extremist, but consider for a moment how quickly fads or pop culture alter our concept of beauty. Within my lifetime I have seen the rise of Kate Moss’ unique brand of “thin is in” give way to the “real women” movement of Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. True, a large butt may not ensure our survival, but it could have some effect on whom we choose to mate with.
Selecting what traits your child will have would potentially eliminate any alteration on human physiology, effectively stunting our evolutionary growth.