Unnatural Selection: The Consequences of Genetically Enhancing Our Children for Perfection

We are at an unprecedented point in history. With the time and cost required for full genome sequencing rapidly declining and the Human Genome Project completed in 2001, the ability to determine certain aspects of our children will become more pertinent to our daily lives [1].  Illnesses such as Cystic Fibrosis, Down syndrome, Sickle-cell Anemia, or Scoliosis may not exist as parents determine characteristics for their future children.unnatural selec pic

With the ability to tinker with genes that cause illness, humans will also have the ability to choose other characteristics.  Parents could determine their child to have particular physical traits such as specific height, hair color, or eye color.  Parents could potentially meddle with IQ, or the ability for certain talents.   These enhancements will surely give the child an edge over others in this competitive world.  If these “designer babies” can reach unnaturally high levels of performance, then the society as a whole may benefit from computer geniuses, violin protégés, or athletic marvels of an ability unfamiliar to the year 2014.  Perhaps parents may feel exceeding proud of the honor their children have brought to the family and the service that they have offered to others.  However, the benefits of implementing this powerful technology to change the very nature of our species come with its costs and responsibilities.  Now is the time to consider the extent to which engineering children for perfection can benefit the individual, family unit, or society involved.  We must analyze all sides of the debate to consider if genetic engineering will diminish suffering, lead to a healthier population, and empower individuals. Or maybe genetic engineering is a violation of human dignity that will forever alter the familial and moral nature of our species.  Perhaps the implications of genetic engineering can be viewed through multiple perspectives.

Scientists will be able to interfere with the natural in vivo fertilization (sperm and egg unite in the uterus) that our species has always, until recently, relied on to reproduce.  With in vitro fertilization (sperm and egg unite in an artificial setting such as a test tube or dish) scientists will be able to declare, with high but not perfect accuracy, that a child will not develop a certain disease as a result of genetic mutation. Scientists will either prevent illness by uniting the sperm and egg that each carry the most optimal traits for the offspring.  Another method may be to insert a functional, therapeutic gene to replace the gene with the less favorable trait. The latter is called gene therapy [2].

Starting in the late 1990s, technology has allowed women who have mitochondrial disease to take measures to have children – the illness makes them more prone to infertility [3].  The mitochondrion is an organelle in a cell that has its own genome. To have children, women with such a disorder, must obtain the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from a third party, and thus the child may be born with 3 sets of DNA – mother and father’s DNA in the genome, and mtDNA from the third member. People have the ability to create a genetically modified human [4].  The potential to tamper with Mother Nature may lead to a slippery slope to create other genetically altered humans who contain certain, “optimal” and chosen genes.

Understandably, parents only want the best opportunities for their children.  From choosing a sexual partner to avoiding unhealthy foods during pregnancy, people constantly try to impact how their offspring will develop [5].  Yet, if they decide to alter their child’s genome, parents may lose an appreciation for the gift of their child’s life in which the child is loved and supported even for his or her imperfections. In the future, parents may not tolerate failure and mistakes.  If they designed their child to have heightened intellectual capacities, like a higher IQ, when a child makes careless mistakes on a test or he is not top of his class, parents may grow displeased and frustrated.  Parents may believe that since they paid for technology to improve the intellect of their son, there should never be an excuse to make a mistake or to not perform to the best of his ability.  Instead of supporting the child through a struggle and appreciating hard work and perseverance, parents may have unreasonable expectations for their children.  After all, these children do have emotions and can feel stress, pressure and fear, which may be forgotten by parents who do not help the child overcome any fallback.  Perhaps parents will sue the genetic engineering company or hospital for their child’s shortcomings, instead of feeling a sense of duty and responsibility to help their child through.

Having the ability to genetically determine a future child’s characteristics may not be an exercise of free will.  Both parents and children may become enslaved by this technology.  Children will already have their lives determined for them by their parents [5].  Envision two parents who augmented their child’s ability to play the violin.  They planned for her to be a world-renowned concert violinist.  Their daughter may find that she is not passionate about playing the violin. None of her other abilities were enhanced to make her competitive enough to succeed in another realm, such as sports or mathematics.  Even parents will be repressed by this technology.  Parents who are against the genetic enhancement of children will feel compelled to interfere with the future child’s genome [5].  If many other parents are selecting favorable genes in their offspring, the child will only fall behind in this competitive and merciless atmosphere if the parents do not act too.  What responsibility will be placed on parenting and encouraging hard work and perseverance if parents believe that a child has already obtained certain potentials?  What will be the value of hard work to children if their feel indebt rather than responsible for their achievements?

The cost of genetically altering one’s child will surely cost a fortune.  If only a select number of people can afford to implement the technology, a whole portion of society will still suffer from genetic disorders and will not have unnaturally enhanced abilities.  Economic background will be a large determinant in what educational, occupational, and reproductive opportunities exist for an individual.  In the 1997 film, Gattaca, many people have aspects of their genome determined bytheir parents as a result of in vitro fertilization [6].  The parents of the protagonist, Vincent, conceived him in vivo in act of love.  Vincent is deemed an “in-valid” – a person who is viewed by society as impaired and defective.  He works as a janitor with other in-valids.  He can only reach his dream of becoming an astronaut by impersonating a “valid” with a “superior” genetic profile.  By posing as a valid named Jerome, he is able to become an astronaut, but no one can know his true identity.  In Gattaca, a whole portion of society faces prejudice that many believe is justified by science.  People that are not criminals and not impaired, at least not by a 2014 standard, are unable to fully participate in society [6].  According to the Equality Principle of the American Justice philosopher John Rawls, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty” [7].  The genetic engineering of a select group will result in the denial of basic liberties, such as the ability to pursue an education, “the good life” or an occupation one is passionate for.  In Gattaca, there is no interview to apply to become an astronaut.  The sequence is all that is judged, and that is believed to be a valid indicator of one’s potential [6]. Anyone can access another’s genetic information and there is no law against sequencing another’s genetic code without consent.

In Nazi Germany, there was a movement to cleanse itself, and the world, of people considered genetically handicapped or inferior [8].  This movement was motivated by “eugenics” – the concept of strengthening a biological group on the basis of alleged genetic worth [3.  People deemed the “hereditarily sick”, who suffered from schizophrenia, epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, grave body malformations, and hereditary blindness and deafness, were surgically sterilized without consent.  Four hundred ten thousand citizens of Germany were part of the preliminary sterilization plans in 1933 [8]. Some people even supported sterilizing those with only mild signs of a mental disease or those who may be carriers for various defects.  People that fell into these categories accounted for 20% of the German population. (Eugenics was practiced in the United States before Nazi Germany.)  What will be the implication of eugenics if genetic engineering is permitted?  From a Justice Ethics perspective, a society is only as moralas the treatment of its least well off.  The sterilization of entire groups of people may make a society biologically superior, but it will not make the society morally superior [7].  Is the quest for efficiency a matter of endangering human dignity?  Or, is it a matter of alleviating suffering from genetic-based illness and making the overall population healthier?

An individual of this future may be biologically superior, but not necessarily morally superior.  Implementing this technology in society could be a violation of human dignity for not only the genetically untouched but also for the genetically enhanced.  If people are able to perform at a heightened ability, everyone is competing with the other and fending for themselves.  Instead of having 30,000 highly accomplished students competing for 1,000 spots at University X, there may be five times more qualified students applying for the same number of spots. There will be little sense of unity among people, as they will view the success of others as their own demise. We cannot all be above average, so the competition will continue on until we have reached potentials that are not recognizably human from contemporary standards.  Without a sense of solidarity – collaboration; trust; and respect – will diminish.  If there is no limit to our potential in genetic engineering, will people consider whether or not certain actions should be pursued?  If parents pay to add a few inches of height to a child that will be perfectly healthy, is it fair to say that the values of these parents have been completely misled?  The most rewarding part of parenting will be seeing a child get the highest SAT score over her peers, rather than the exchange of unconditional love between parent and child.  If quantitative achievements are emphasized, what value will be put on intangible achievements such as the development of a compassionate character or the quality of perseverance?

The genetic modifications I have mentioned are different from the post-partum physical modifications of today.  Physical modifications such as steroids, Botox and other cosmetic surgery take place during one’s lifetime.  A person who has Botox will not pass on unwrinkled skin to his or her children.  An athlete who takes steroids will not pass on his or her augmented strength to the next generation. There is impermanence for modifications such as Botox and steroids.  Nothing is passed on and we are not changing the very nature of our species, but only masking one’s original ability.  Here, the developed human, and not the potential child, decides for him or herself.  On the other hand, one genetically altered person will have children, and those children will have children.  The augmented abilities or eradication of disease will irreversibly change the nature and abilities of offspring and markedly alter people even far in the future.

Unfortunately, the American public is largely “gene illiterate”.  Without investing the time to ponder the benefits as well as costs of this power, we will remain unable to fully consider the following questions: Who should regulate this technology?  Should parents be told what types of children to design?  How severe must a disease be for it to be eradicated or to prevent someone from being born?

If humankind had acquired the ability to direct our own evolution earlier, perhaps the following people may never have been born: Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, Van Gogh had epilepsy, JFK had Addison’s disease, Einstein had dyslexia, and Stephan Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  What if one of those people who were not chosen to be born happened to be you [6]?

References

[1] Taber, Katherine; Dickenson, Barry; Wilson, Modena. “The Promise and   Challenges of Next-Generation Genome Sequencing for Clinical Care” JAMA Internal Medicine 174, no. 2: 173 – 312.

[2] Reece, B. Jane; Urrey; Lisa A.; Cain; Michael L.; Wasserman, Steven A.; Minorsky,   Peter V.; Jackson, Robert B.  Campbell Biology.  9th Edition.  Pearson, 2006, 418.

[3] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee: Oocyte Modification in Assisted Reproduction for the Prevention of Transmission of Mitochondrial Disease or Treatment of Infertility Briefing, 2014.

[4] Tingley, Kim.  “The Brave New World of Three-Parent I.V.F.” The New York Times Magazine. June 2014, 26 – 38.

[5] Sandel, Michael, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (The United States of America: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[6] Gattaca, DVD, directed by Andrew Niccol (1997; USA: Jersey Films).

[7] Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (The United States of America: Harvard University Press, 1971), 46.

[8] Lifton, Robert Jay, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1986).

Image Credit: 

[1] Retrieved June 27, 2014, from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/askpang/9251502638/sizes/c/in/photostream/

 

Jennifer Romanello is the president of TTH chapter at the George Washington University. She is a sophomore majoring in Biology and minoring in Applied Ethics. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.