3/27/2007

Designer Babies? Ethical dilemmas surrounding Genetic Enhancement

Imagine a future where you could pop a pill and be able to compose like Mozart. Imagine a future where you could take a shot and gain the speed of not just an Olympic sprinter, but a cheetah. Imagine a future world where parents sit in a waiting room, browsing through a “book of life” to decide the eye color, height, facial structure, intellectual capacity and personality type of their yet-to-be-conceived child. While these are certainly extreme examples, given projected development paths for biotechnology, is nonetheless hard to determine any inherent limits on the horizon. Thus, the question becomes not can we leap to new biological realities, but should we.

Leon Kass, the chair of the president’s council on bioethics, answers utilaterally, “No.” Voicing vehemently the potential dangers of genetic engineering, Kass insists that “we are compelled to decide nothing less than whether human procreation is going to remain human. whether children are going to be made to order rather than begotten, and whether we wish to say yes in principle to the road that leads to the dehumanized hell of Brave New World.” And indeed, federal policy seems to be bowing to these fears; since ’96 congress has prohibited researchers from using federal funds for embryo and germline research. Certainly, many contend that these new capacities subvert our most basic traditional philosophical paradigms, and undermine our standard ethical foundations of “human nature” or “humanity.” As Kass further rants, we are absolutely morally obligated to “speak up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

What Kass and countless others seem to be overlooking however, is the doubtless potential of developments in genetic germline technology to do incredible good. These new technologies could well save millions of children from debilitating, often lethal genetic diseases (Tay Sachs, Down Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis just to name a few). Yet when it comes to consciously manipulating the most elemental aspects of our unborn children, profound and unsettling fears emerge. Are we interfering with nature? Playing God? More concretely, could such therapeutic technologies eventually be used to create an entirely new genetically enhanced ruling class? Out of reach of everyone but the already privileged few, the gap between the have’s and the have-not’s could only widen as the privileged become not just socially and economically, but biologically more advantaged. While these fears are not unfounded, to bow to them would be indicative of a profound distrust in the moral capacities of man. It would imply that our capacities for evil outweighed our will to do good.

At the end of the day, obscure, only dimly discernable monsters will always lurk in the shadows of revolutionary technologies. It is ultimately best, however, to shine a light and expose them for what they are—most likely fearsome projections of our own dark, omnipotent urges which can and should be reckoned with continually, not buried or run from. Ignorance is not bliss, it is a cop-out.

To deny afflicted individuals gene therapy on the grounds that we doubt our abilities to comprehend long-term implications and act discriminately would be nothing short of crippling cowardice. There is no question that forging ahead with our quest to unlock the mysteries of our genes poses real and daunting challenges that are intuitively obvious. And indeed, as scientists and citizens, we have an obligation to be informed and ever sensitive of risks, ever cautious in action. Yet “we mislead ourselves if we imagine that the tradeoff is between meager benefits and great dangers” . Our exploding discoveries in genetics, as long as well guided, bring the hope of affecting miraculous change for mankind that could surely be more compassionate than the mindless randomness of nature.

1 comment:

waffle said...

The issue of genetic enhancement is a complicated one. On the one hand there are a lot of illnesses and conditions that could hypothetically be treated by gene alterations and yet on the other hand it seems that such a practice can easily be taken to extremes in order to produce “perfect” babies. I think that, at the least, such genetic alterations are justified in order to rid children of serious conditions and illnesses. There are two things that make me agree with mmk on this matter. Firstly, I think that it is perfectly fair to correct negative deviations from an “acceptable” life i.e. one devoid of serious physical or mental problems. I already support mercy killings for children with serious conditions such as (infantile) Tay-Sachs disease. But of course saving and curing an infant is infinitely better than killing it out of mercy. Secondly, John Rawls, one of the great political philosophers of our time, argues that we do not have any reason to deserve the talents we are given. Our innate abilities and capacities are unfortunately a matter of luck and to the extent that we can equalize our differences, we ought to, he feels. Thus there is no reason to respect the “natural order” because a lot of things might be construed as natural. Maybe we shouldn’t have hospitals, for example, because it is “natural” to die when your time comes. Or maybe we shouldn’t wear clothes because all the other creatures of the Earth do not. It seems that nakedness, even if it is not a tradition of most societies, is “natural” in that it is prevalent in the animal kingdom. Thus since there is no particular reason to respect the way nature has made us, as Rawls would argue, we can reasonably modify the initial conditions to provide better lives for people and, as Rawls would like, more equality.