A Bioethicist Argues for Engineering Babies That Will Have an Easy Life

The stream of often surprising, sometimes troubling, always fascinating advances that have followed advances in genetic screening and the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing breakthrough have also dredged up a familiar wreck of dystopian science fiction: the dreaded, Huxleyan “designer baby.”

The engineered child of the genetics revolution will not laugh or dance or play, but exist as an emotionless drone: a soldier in an army of (admittedly, probably quite good-looking) doppelgangers toiling away their lives in soulless devotion to the cause. Which, whatever it is, will definitely be sinister. That’s the line that science fiction feeds us on tampering with our children’s genes, anyway.

But while authors and filmmakers fret about the inhumanity of posthumanity, modern-day political philosophers and bioethicists have long been exploring the social question around making children in our desired image: If we could design a child the way we design a Build-A-Bear, what sort of things should we (and shouldn’t we) be allowed to do?

“We shouldn’t be using reproduction as a way of engineering political or social change—which is exactly what the Nazis tried to do,” Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford University and TED speaker, told me. “[But] paradoxically, indirectly, what I think we’re trying to do by restricting people’s freedom is much closer to a state-sponsored eugenic vision, or a state-sponsored vision about the way the world should be, that restricts procreative freedom for the sake of achieving some sort of social goal.”

Savulescu’s position is intuitively, appealingly simple: “What can we do to ensure each child has the best chance in life?”

Savulescu is the father of an idea in reproductive ethics known as “procreative beneficence.” In 2001, as the Human Genome Project was generating some of the first front-page hand-wringing over designer babies, he introduced a new way of thinking about what sort of kids we should have, should genetic technologies ever be passed round the circle in antenatal classes. Where other prominent bioethicists such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel and Monash University’s Robert Sparrow have argued, respectively, that to engineer a child is to treat them as an “object of design,” or risks the creation of a generation of genetic Doppelgangers, Savulescu’s position is intuitively, appealingly simple: “What can we do to ensure each child has the best chance in life?”

“Procreative beneficence is a principle I articulated… [as] more and more information was becoming available about our genome and the whole DNA structure of embryos,” he explained over Skype. “And procreative beneficence says that we should use that information to select embryos that have the best chance of the best life, other things being equal. So, if you have ten embryos, you ought to do genetic testing, and not only should you select the embryos which have the least disposition to disease… but also you ought to select in favour of those [which] have genes that have been associated with a better chance of a better life.”

Exactly what constitutes a “better” or “best” life demands obvious scrutiny. But Savulescu’s proposition doesn’t need to delve that deep. Procreative beneficence, in its broadest sense, holds that there are some human traits we’d all like our children to enjoy, and therefore are obligated to select for.

“There will be certain traits that we can predict are going to be valuable in the way the world is likely to be,” he said. “Those would include general intelligence, a level of impulse control, an ability to form stable goals and values… I think we can identify certain goods that are likely to be all-purpose in the way the world is likely to be. In a highly technical world, being able to manipulate symbols and engage in symbolic reasoning is an important trait. In the African Savannah or in some still-hunter-gatherer society in some deep part of South America, maybe it’s not so important. Maybe being physically strong and agile is more important. But, you know, you’ve got a fair idea of where [your child] is going to live and roughly what sorts of qualities are necessary to participate in the world today.”

Let’s be clear: We’re in hypothetical territory here. There is no single gene that corresponds to traits such as intelligence, and any genetic factors that contribute to behaviours are naturally only part of the puzzle. But Savulescu contends that we can’t rule out technology being available in the future that could allow us to select for a genetic predisposition to all kinds of traits in a similar manner to sex selection.

"I think people ought to be able to choose the kind of children that they feel best able to parent."

And what if you, as a future parent, don’t want to stop at smart and self-controlled progeny? What if you and a sympathetic doctor really want to rattle around under the hood, swapping irises in and out, and—some future genetic technology permitting—tinkering with more?

What if you look at the world and say, “You know what? Girls have it harder than boys. Straight white men have it the easiest, so I want one of those”? What happens to diversity if everyone starts thinking that way?

“I’ve argued for the freedom to select the sex of your child,” Savulescu replied. “I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with [things like that], unless it leads collectively to some sort of social problem, such as a significant gender imbalance, or it leads to significant levels of discrimination. Some people will choose to have a child who’s male, white and heterosexual, and other people will choose to have a child who’s female and disposed to be gay.”

“[But], take a hypothetical example,” he continued. “Imagine you’re in a society where women are treated as sex slaves and placed in harems ten at a time for the pleasure of one male. Clearly, in such a society, a boy would have better prospect of a better life. And in such a society, I think you ought to have a boy.”

Savuelscu’s position appeals to two established pillars of childrearing. First: Everyone should do the best they can for their kid. And second: Once we’ve agreed on that, other people—and particularly the state—shouldn’t put up roadblocks to your achieving that.

“Do I think it’s [necessarily] the right thing to do, to select sex?” Savulescu asked, rhetorically. “No, I don’t. I don’t think it’s particularly right, just as it’s not particularly right to select blond hair rather than red hair. But do I think people ought to be banned from doing it as they are now? No, I don’t think they ought to be banned. I think people ought to be able to choose the kind of children that they feel best able to parent—[the children] they believe have the best opportunity in life.”

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