Anna: So we have what I think is the perfect trio for this baby-making debate: a woman who just gave birth to her second child (Rachel Gall), a woman pregnant with her first child (Eve Kerrigan), and me -- a woman with no children (that she knows of). This topic of genetically modified babies is sometimes referred to as “designer babies.”
Eve: Yes. I didn’t realize I should have put my order in for this baby before I got pregnant.
Rachel: Haha. That was my first reaction, like McBabies for sale or something. But I think, as a parent, it’s hard not to think of the potential to have your kid free of genetic diseases before they are even born. The issue is what counts as a serious flaw and just cosmetic.
Eve: You know. It is interesting. They (who? maybe non-breeders? or cynics?) always say having kids is the ultimate act of ego and arrogance what with overpopulation and blah blah blah. I never really subscribe to that notion, but I think in this case, maybe I am a bit egocentric because I don’t imagine my kid being born with any genetic diseases.
Anna: Do you mean that you have a (false?) sense of security that that couldn’t be your baby, for whatever reason?
Eve: Yes. I don’t know if it is false. I don’t have a history of genetic disease in my family so maybe I don’t relate to the desire to do this crazy thing because I am confident (perhaps mistakenly so) that my kid will be ok.
Anna: Did either of you have genetic testing early on to check for abnormalities?
Eve: No, I didn’t. I knew I was having the kid. I figured, what could I do? (The answer, evidently, is plenty!) I’m kind of a hippie, though...
Rachel: I think I did have some testing done, but it was part of standard procedure with my checkups, so I don’t remember the details.
Anna: I think I would want extensive testing done, but if the results aren’t what you’d hoped/planned for, that brings up a whole other set of personal ethical issues.
Rachel: I think one clear concern is how any engineered changes can be passed on to future generations. That’s a huge responsibility. Especially not knowing how genes could continue to change over generations. It has scary implications.
Eve: Definitely. Look at genetically modified food. GMO food sources started with the really good intention to feed starving nations or to protect vulnerable crops from disease, but now we have frankenfood which dangerously lacks biodiversity. The implications of that alone are staggering.
Beyond that, though, there are some really weird moral issues if you map the GMO food experience onto the GMO child one. Will some massive corporation emerge that wants to patent certain genetic traits -- certain types of imperviousness to disease or certain abilities? Then, said corporate entity could get their piece of the pie every time someone wants to control for that result in their child. This could be one big, evil business.
Rachel: Right, like GMOs, McBabies could start with a good and innocent intention and get out of control. Like Frankenstein. So, based on that, any good that could come from understanding and engineering human DNA would have to be very well studied and ethical.
Anna: Is there a movie about that? Or some sort of sci-fi book? If not, there should be.
Eve: You’re right. I am on that!
Rachel: There was a sci-fi movie called Code 46 about people who are all “perfectly modified” before they are born. The premise was that all genetic coding of every individual had to be on record so they wouldn’t mate with someone they were related to. So the story was about the implications of a man who falls in love with his genetic mother.
Eve: Also Gattaca. But, Rachel, is it possible for that type of DNA engineering to be ethical and responsible? What would that look like?
Rachel: That’s a good question. The scarier implication is that it could imply value judgments of what’s a “flaw.” That was my second concern besides creating Franken-babies. Imagine what this could have looked like 150 years ago when there were huge value judgements placed on physical traits? The reverse would be a concern, too. Things we see as valuable, say intelligence, is a bit vague when it comes to defining what that means. You could have a very “smart” baby with no empathy, or other attributes that are hard to teach or are not genetic.
Anna: Yes. And we used to employ a practice of physiognomy to identify criminals (or likely criminals) based on specific attributes -- which was basically a fancy way of justifying racial profiling.
Rachel: Yes, yes exactly. Practical physiognomy is a scary concept to me. The question is: are human beings capable of creating a perfect human being? Or even a “better” human being? I’m leaning towards “no.” But fixing obvious flaws could be worth while.
Anna: But your “obvious flaw” might be different than my obvious flaw. I think it is a question of how we distinguish “fixing” from “designing.”
Rachel: Yes, exactly.
Eve: That’s an interesting distinction. Still, we currently have a great many value judgments that we place on appearance -- physical traits, as well as every other discernible trait of a human being. How about the assumptions we carry around about being male and female? “I want a baby that’s going to be a scientist! I want to make sure it is a boy then, so I am more likely to get that result, since boys are better at science than girls.” Or, better yet, “I live in China. I am definitely going to have a boy…”
I think the moral implications that come up here are basically the same as the ones that emerge when we talk about cloning. What are we trying to create and why? What is the platonic ideal of a human and according to whom?
I also think about people like Temple Grandin or Glenn Gould. These are people who, I might argue (and so might they), have a gift, not a flaw. But if you saw before they were born that they would have a medical diagnosis that falls under a category of “special needs” or “brain defect” in the hypothetical world of GMO babies, you would change that in a heartbeat. So, then where would we be? Temple Grandin has made enormous contributions to the worlds of animal husbandry, slaughterhouse culture, awareness about animal communication, etc. She could not, would not have done that if she were not autistic. You can’t have it both ways. Arguably, it is society that needs to grow and expand in order to encompass people like Grandin into the new normal so that their lives are not so fraught with pain and discomfort and illegitimacy, rather than cherry picking baby traits.
Also, how boring!! We would know just what we would get!! Everyone would be the same! Imagine, all those big, straight white teeth! All those heterosexuals. All those lawyers and engineers who can play piano. All those people with no infirmities and no sensitivity to being vulnerable or fallible. Like a world of prom queens and football stars. Yuck. no Allen Ginsbergs, no Jack Kerouacs, no Frida Kahlos, no John Waters, no Keith Richards, no that weird Japanese guy from Lost in Translation who hosts that crazy show, no Louis CK, no Chris Rock, Peter Dinklage, no anyone interesting.
Anna: I like to use the Christmas decorations analogy. I definitely don’t want to live in a world where everyone just strings up white lights and Pottery Barn ornaments. We need this guy, too.
Eve: Ha! I think I know that guy!
Anna: PLEASE introduce me. Eve, what you’re describing is what often happens in virtual world like Second Life: If you can create “perfection,” then everyone designs variations on that ideal -- the Prom Queen / Quarterback ideal. In fact, if you are a “newbie” in those worlds and you don’t visually conform, the other avatars will offer to help you because they assume you must not know how. They can’t imagine you would consciously make that choice. The choice to not be “perfect.”
Eve: Wow. That’s crazy. But, exactly. Still, perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection as we see it in America is just a projection of what we’ve been sold and what we think gets us the most toys.
Rachel: People like Grandin and Gould challenge ideas about conventional intelligence. Good point about China preferring boys over girls, too. What if you could pick which gender you wanted beforehand? I wonder what that would look like in our society?
Anna: We are getting closer to that, Rachel. This reminds me of the conversations I’ve been having lately about the singularity. Is this type of thing just an inevitability as we become more “tech” and less “human” -- or as we redefine what it means to be human? And assuming there are no “complications” for future generations, how do we distinguish this from cosmetic procedures?
Rachel: I guess one way to distinguish the cosmetic vs health difference is to be clear on how the human body is supposed to function. Things like major organs, your pancreas, heart, liver, nervous system. There is an internal order to aspects of the human body, so maybe start there, and for ethical reasons stay there. Again, there is always the risk of value judgements creeping in though. WIth the obesity epidemic, maybe it’s “best” for people to have more efficient metabolisms. The problem is that our bodies are “designed” to hold onto as much fat as possible for survival, and if our metabolisms were modified and a famine hits, then it wouldn’t benefit human beings to have a “too efficient” metabolism. We can’t “improve” the human body based on a certain contexts, like having enough food. BUT can you imagine the market for “improved metabolism”?? You could be a billionaire.
Anna: Well, that’s what life-hackers like Dave Asprey (the Bulletproof Executive) and people in the futurist and quantified self movements are trying to do (and it’s pretty impressive). But I think there’s a difference between what they’re doing -- which is trying to self-optimize and improve -- and labeling a single trait as faulty and therefore something that should be eliminated altogether. For instance, a disproportionate number of (very famous) CEOs are dyslexic. Would we choose to alter Steve Jobs? Richard Branson? Henry Ford? Bill Hewlett? Ingvar Kamprad, the creator of IKEA? (though if we could eliminate whatever genetic code led to the creation of such frustrating assembly instructions, that would be great).
Rachel: Right, we’re wrong about so many of our assessments of what is considered “normal” and “good” that there is a slippery slope. However, can scientists know conclusively how lymphnodes or a pancreas is supposed to work? If so, why not improve that? Well, I guess it’s not improving so much it’s just making it functional. So perhaps the crux of the issue is functionality versus improvement. Er, “improvement.” Sort of a quantitative versus qualitative approach. If my pancreas wasn’t working, I wouldn’t want a doctor to say “that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
Eve: Right, Rachel. And the cause of the obesity epidemic? Poor nutrition, bad food engineering.
Exactly my point, Anna. A disproportionate number of pedophiles may be left handed. Should we eliminate left handedness even though it is also associated with creativity?
Rachel: That’s a bizarre fact. Many presidents (and major candidates) have also been left-handed.
Eve: I’ve heard that! It makes me giggle for some reason.
We are learning every day. I don’t think it helps to be alarmist either (despite the many alarmist things I have said here). We are just now uncovering a world of information about the human body as a biosphere and from that are learning so much about preventing disease through the introduction of microorganisms into the biosphere. I think this is extremely good and interesting research without all of the moral dilemmas present in this GMO nonsense. It is possible to use science to grow and evolve as a race.
The GMO thing reminds me of another sci-fi notion I once heard relating to cloning: it’s a futuristic world where people clone themselves and give their clones frontal lobotomies, and then just put them on treadmills and make them do healthy things all day, every day, and then harvest them for their organs when the original human’s body gives out from hard living. We come up with crazy ideas as humans. We are motivated by strange desires and we are good at convincing ourselves we are doing good when, maybe, we are not. I promise if this thing actually happens, there will be people bred to not reproduce (eugenics again) and every other horror you can think of.
Anna: So much sci-fi fodder. I have one final question: As a pure hypothetical, is there anything -- anything at all -- that you would want your child to be genetically coded for? Could be physical, mental, emotional -- anything.
Rachel: Physical, perhaps. Ten decent fingers and ten decent toes, they don’t have to be perfect. Heart, lungs, liver, that sort of thing. Organs that either function or they do not but are fairly clear in what their function is and how to fix it. I’m not sure we even have a great grasp on the mental and emotional state of human beings enough to “fix” them genetically. Perhaps big blue eyes for my FrankenMcBaby, as well.
Eve: I can think of a dozen funny answers (human flight, chronic laughter, Sherlock Holmes intelligence) but truly, no. I want what I am going to get and I think that is the unique arrangement of genes that will be perfect for her, too.
Anna: Maybe they can engineer a baby that is pre-potty trained and sleeps 8 hours every night. I might sign up for that.
Eve: :) no such luck
Rachel: Aw, no fun!