Sirine Shebaya, "Are 'Designer Babies' on the Horizon?," Science Progress, May 15, 2008. Copyright © 2008 by Science Progress, the Center for American Progress. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
Sirine Shebaya is a philosopher who focuses on bioethics and healthcare issues at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She earned her doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University and served as the Greenwall Fellow in Bioethics and Health Policy from 2007 to 2009.
Scientific advances in human development attract a lot of media attention and raise concerns about the prospect of designer babies. This response was especially notable after scientists employed genetic engineering to create a human embryo from scratch. The embryo was quickly destroyed, but the fears linger on. Such a technological capacity holds great potential for alleviating genetic diseases, but also for misuse. Therefore, a broad public discussion is appropriate. The potential for misuse alone cannot, by itself, be the basis for a decision to ban the technology outright. Slippery slope arguments—the idea that if you allow one marginal practice, it will inevitably lead to an array of reprehensible practices—are also not valid justifications for bans. Instead, public discussion should lead to selective bans on misuses and regulation of beneficial uses.
The media is abuzz with news of researchers at Cornell University successfully creating the first genetically engineered human embryo. The embryo was destroyed after five days, but critics argue that this is a first step towards "designer babies," and that the scientists overstepped by making a decision on a controversial subject without consulting the public or opening the issue up for an informed discussion. In order to properly weigh the ethical issues, one relevant piece of information we must consider is the goal of the experiment and its projected benefits. The potential rewards of this work are immense, but we should not scoff at the possibility that this kind of research could ultimately lead to the technology for creating babies with preselected mental or physical traits.
The scientists argue that the embryo they used was not viable—it had three sets of chromosomes rather than the normal two—and therefore could not have developed into a baby anyway. They also claim that since the research, focused on stem cells, was privately funded and passed their internal review board, they violated no federal regulations. The suggestion was even made that this did not constitute a huge technological advance because the technique is already commonly used for gene therapy. So was there anything ethically irresponsible about their experiment? And what can we conclude about this type of research in general?
The scientists claim that their goal was to find out if genetic changes made to embryos can be passed on to daughter cells. Genetic modifications in an embryo are thought to be inheritable, whereas current gene therapy—genetic modification performed on people for disease treatment purposes—cannot be passed on to future generations. The potential benefits of heritable genetic modification are huge—for instance, individuals could potentially rid their offspring of a gene that would predispose them to breast cancer—but so are its potential abuses. We cannot assume without discussion that preselecting our offspring's genetic makeup is not an undesirable outcome.
Scientists constantly emphasize that we are still a long way away from children with preselected traits. But declining to regulate research that could lead us to a point where such choices are possible is troubling precisely because we cannot expect individual scientists to censor themselves based on a concern for societal consequences. This is arguably not their job. Remember division of labor and how it increases efficiency? Scientists have a mission to explore and pursue the most promising avenues of research within the bounds of government regulations. Policy makers and legislators have a mission to figure out where the lines ought to be drawn. Whether we like the idea of "designer babies" or not, their possibility would entail quite serious public and societal consequences. Decisions about the issue have to be made not simply at the level of individual scientists and research labs, but at the public, societal level, particularly given the extent of moral disagreements on the matter.
As members of a recent AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] panel on stem cell research have pointed out, the mere existence of moral controversy is not in itself sufficient to determine the ethical standing of an experiment or research direction. However, the existence of moral controversy mandates a public ethical review and a set of regulations consistent both with expert opinions and with social values.
The mere fact that a particular type of research could lead to undesirable applications is not a good reason to ban the research if it also has sufficiently important good consequences. Instead, it is a good reason to ban the undesirable applications.
Worries Don't Warrant Ban
Slippery slope worries can be compelling in some cases, but not everything is a slippery slope. The mere fact that a particular type of research could lead to undesirable applications is not a good reason to ban the research if it also has sufficiently important good consequences. Instead, it is a good reason to ban the undesirable applications. The best way to avoid slippery slopes to bad outcomes is to have an informed, democratic discussion that takes into account both expert opinions and social values. We need regulations because scientists and the general public need clarity about what they can and cannot do, a convincing rationale for permissions and restrictions, and a voice in arriving at decisions with such important ramifications.