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.