The future is now, apparently. It is 2015, after all. The year Marty McFly time-traveled into the future. The year that brought us, cinematically speaking, hover boards and flying cars. It is also the year that scientists (not Doc Brown) say we should seriously begin debating the ethicality of designer babies.
Dr. Tony Perry, “a pioneer in cloning” says the fact that his work editing mice DNA is approaching 100% efficacy means it’s time to decide what is ethically acceptable. As he told BBC news, “On the human side, one has to be very cautious … it’s up to society as a whole to begin assessing the implications and decide what is acceptable.” Germ-line therapy is considered by many to be the most ethically acceptable form of DNA modification. It’s when scientists “cure” genetic diseases in embryos by replacing faulty sections of DNA with healthy DNA. It’s been successfully done on animal embryos but is illegal to do on humans. Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, from the UK Medical Research Council says testing embryos for disease during IVF would be the best way of preventing diseases being passed down through the generations.
But if we decide modifying genes to avoid genetic diseases is acceptable, where does it stop? Next thing you know you’ll have parents who want the “perfect” baby — demanding a specific gender, eye, or hair color. My knee-jerk reaction is that genetically modifying physical and intellectual characteristics is absolutely unethical and unnatural. Who are we to inflict changes on another human being that can’t consent? And if parents are so involved in the choosing of their child’s basic make-up, aren’t we setting up a strange tyrannical dynamic of expectations over who the child will be and what they’ll do with their life?
Someone who doesn’t agree with me is Bonnie Steinbock, a philosopher at the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). Steinbock tells Live Science she sees nothing wrong with parents picking and choosing their child’s traits. According to her, it’s not clear that there’s anything unique, from an ethical perspective, in parents trying to foster certain traits through genetics as compared to using tutors, music lessons, or instilling discipline. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the attempt to make our children smarter or kinder. If we did think that was wrong, we should give up parenting, and put them out on the street.”
I’m not sure I buy that. Picking and choosing desirable physical characteristics ain’t exactly the same thing as music lessons. It’s not just having the musical skill that’s important, it’s learning the crucial life lessons that come with taking up any kind of music or sports class and trying really hard to become skilled at it, not just altering someone’s DNA code so they’re automatically awesome at everything. Additionally, what about the impact on society as a whole? Would genetically modifying DNA create a gap in society with “designer babies” populating the smart, beautiful class? Will we eventually become a society filled with people who are all smart, athletic, and “beautiful” based on popular ideals?
The bottom line, for me, is that a baby cannot consent to having its body altered and I do not “own” my child. Unless it was a potentially life-saving situation, all manner of genetically altering human beings terrifies me. So my answer is no to genetic modification but a great big yes to hover boards and flying cars.
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