Unnatural selection: survival of the litmus

Two articles today raise the unsettling spectre of human genetic engineering. Or more precisely, of human genetic selection. Scientific advances now appear to make possible trait selection for cosmetic reasons, in addition to disease screening and gender determination, both of which have been practiced for some time.

BBC News reports that the Fertility Institute of Los Angeles, California will facilitate the birth of a designer baby next year. The Wall Street Journal offers further details and background on the process known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. Both stories were featured on the Drudge Report today.

Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles, California will select and implant embryos based on genetic makeup

Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles, California will select and implant embryos based on genetic makeup. Photo available on the grou's website at http://www.fertility-docs.com.

Essentially, doctors test a handful of viable human embryos, and select a given embryo for implantation into the mother’s womb.

Perhaps most would agree that it would not be unethical to screen for life-threatening diseases or other serious conditions. But what about cosmetic trait selection? Characteristics like hair color, eye color and height? To what degree could skin tone be affected? The BBC article reports that complexion could be altered, but possible implications on race are not discussed.

This all raises a number of ethical questions, some old and some new. For instance, what happens to the embryos not selected? The undesirable human embryos? In most if not all cases, they are discarded – terminated. This human life is destroyed so John and Sue can have a perfect little Junior. 

Is it right to choose which humans will be born based on their genetic characteristics? Is it right to choose who will be part of your family based on what color their hair is, or how tall they are? In all of this, it’s important too make the distinction that these traits are not being selected. What is being selected is the individual embryos, based on their possession of certain traits (or lack thereof).

Among the most troubling facts reported by the WSJ article is this:

“Instead of avoiding some conditions, the technique also may have been used to select an embryo likely to have the same disease or disability, such as deafness, that affects the parents. The Johns Hopkins survey found that 3% of PGD clinics had provided this service, sometimes described as “negative enhancement.” Groups who support this approach argue, for example, that a deaf child born to a deaf couple is better suited to participating in the parents’; shared culture. So far, however, no single clinic has been publicly identified as offering this service.”

So, parents are electing to bring a child into the world because he or she will suffer from deafness, blindess or some other debilitating condition. That might sound like an odd or unfair way to put it, but remember that parents are not choosing traits – they are choosing children. I imagine that distinction – that fact – may be often overlooked in the ensuing discussion on the selection subject at large.

People without sight or without hearing often develop strong bonds with other similar individuals. These relationships form a sort of community in which there is a unique culture and customs. I appreciate – at least in a way I can from the perspective of someone who sees and hears – the desire of such parents to have a child who can personally relate to them in this fundamental way, and participate in the same culture. I can understand the fear that may arise in these parents when confronted by the possibility that their child may not be deaf, may not be blind – and thus may not be connected, personally and socially, to them in this way. 

However, I can not but conclude at this time that “negative enhancement” seems to be a misuse of science and wrongly indulged hope at best, and a selfish, primitive exploitation of human life and one’s own children at worst. I take a similarly dim view of positive enhancement for cosmetic reasons, and at least a skeptical view of genetic determination. On genetic disease screening, I’m more open but I believe there are still profound ethical questions to be answered. 

With continuing medical science advances and no state or federal laws on the books in the United States, one thing is clear: trait-selected human offspring are likely to walk among us in the near future.

Post Script: There are a few good movies that deal with related topics. Check out Gattaca with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, or The Island with Scarlett Johanssan and Ewan McGregor. The latter – in which some human beings are cloned and harvested for their organs – bears (if with artistic license to great dramatic effect) an undeniable connection to today’s practice of “savior siblings,” which is discussed in the WSJ article.

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Filed under Abortion, Bio-Science, Philosophy and Ethics

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