As it happened, before I ever heard about "designer babies," I already knew a great deal about them. My seventh grade science teacher screened the 1997 movie Gattaca for us one afternoon. Gattaca anticipated today's growing debate over designing future generations of human beings. Vincent, the protagonist, portrayed by Ethan Hawke, is conceived out of love -- that is, naturally. But he lives in a world in which genetically engineering babies has become the norm. As his family doctor explains, they select only the best genetic parts of each parent to create a new baby.
I remembered this movie long after I forgot its title. What stuck with me was the injustice inflicted upon Vincent. Though he was the most passionate candidate to become an astronaut, had he not hidden his predisposition for heart failure, he never would have been chosen for the space mission. And yet, he could achieve so much through his own efforts. As he said, "I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."
But isn't this science fiction? We can question the timeline for when custom-order offspring will become ubiquitous, but with increasing vigor, bioethicists are calling for new efforts in debating the ethics of designer babies.
One voice among the growing group of scientists is that of Dr. Anthony Perry of the University of Bath, who helped pioneer the field of DNA editing, and continues to research CRISPR technology. In his lab, Perry and his team edited the mouse genome using what are essentially "molecular scissors." But even as he makes progress in the biotechnological field, Perry agrees that society must soon decide at which point the usage of these advances becomes unethical.
The term "designer babies" came into wide usage in 1999, due to the case of Monique and Scott Collins. In the process of receiving IVF treatments, they chose to select for female embryos, as they already had several sons. Time wrote about their decision, igniting a discussing of how gender selection was the first step in choosing other traits such as skin, eye or hair color, height, and strength. Most importantly, these traits have no direct link to the health of the child.
It seems cruel to deny parents and their future offspring the ability to repair a broken DNA strand that might otherwise result in the mistranslation of a gene. But without any limits to gene editing, what's to stop us from entering the world of Gattaca? Today, uses of CRISPR technology do not stray far from the lab. But someday researchers could apply CRISPR methods to edit any portion of the genome of any species. Beyond its therapeutic uses, DNA editing could allow parents to select for traits such as intelligence or strength. Designer babies could become a cosmetic choice determined by parents.
Where to Draw the Line?
It's far easier to call for a complete moratorium on germ line modifications, than if I were denying this treatment to hopeful parents. But society needs to have a conversation about where to draw the line. And we need to have it before we embark on any activities that we would later recognize as unethical tampering.
The idea of genetic modifications getting out of hand should terrify us to some degree. Developments in CRISPR technology might very well be a precursor to transhumanism, the theory that the human race could evolve to attain capabilities beyond the current reach -- particularly through technological and scientific means. Genetic modifications will force us reconsider what it fundamentally means to be human. This raises the question of whether it's ethical to modify the human race if it might lead to our extinction.
Science is amazing. And there will be incredible strides in what biotechnology can achieve. But just because we can achieve certain results in the lab doesn't mean that this knowledge should be transferred into everyday life and be applied to make the "perfect" human being. The topic of designer babies falls well beyond the purview of scientific research. So before Gattaca becomes more than just science fiction, lawmakers, physicians, geneticists, and ethicists -- the global community -- must engage in some honest discussions about when we put the brakes on gene experimentation and alteration.
Charlotte Fitzek is a graduating senior at Wellesley College, studying East Asian Studies and Chemistry.
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