Rahul Thadani, "Designer Babies Debate," Buzzle.com, September 20, 2011. http://www.buzzle.com. Copyright © 2011 by Buzzle.com. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
Rahul Thadani has written extensively for Buzzle.com, covering topics ranging from sports to cutting-edge scientific discoveries, and from food to home tattoo removal.
While the public may have little insight into new developments on the frontier of designer babies, the issue is intensely debated within the scientific community. As possibilities within genetic modification science expand, a world in which children can be selected for appearance, intelligence, and health seems just around the corner. The impact on society is hard to predict, but several ethical questions immediately arise. The hefty cost of the procedure means that few families will have access to the procedures, creating a wide divide between the poor and the genetically altered wealthy. Genetic diversity will also be greatly reduced, leaving the human race susceptible to certain diseases. There may be additional unintended consequences for the modified children themselves. While the basic intentions of the science behind designer babies are good, the potential for ethical entanglements is great. Humanity would be better off not pursuing such technologies.
Alpha children wear gray. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is a beastly color. I'm so glad I'm a Beta.
When Aldous Huxley coined this quote in 1932 in his novel Brave New World, he had no idea how intense the designer babies debate could become less than a century after. His book was a satirical look into a Utopian society, where people were segregated on the basis of genetic modifications that they were subjected to as embryos. The end result was a seriously disillusioned world where these modifications brought on a revival of the dark ages.
The designer babies debate today is something that the public eye has been shielded from, and for good measure. Companies like Google and Amazon have banned advertisements of gene modifications in many countries, since this is an issue that really splits opinion. It is in the confines of scientific labs and multinational companies' conference halls that this debate is slowly rising and threatening to boil over.
The designer babies debate is ... about how we are learning to sidestep nature, and how this could crumble society as we know it today.
Defining Designer Babies
Before we get into designer babies ethical issues, it is crucial to understand what this truly means. Picture a world where parents of a yet unborn child can modify his/her genes, and thus determine his/her physical appearance, cleverness and resistance to disease. It sounds like stuff that science fiction movies are made of, but we are fast approaching a day when this method will be guaranteed to work. What happens to the world after that, remains to be seen.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a designer baby is 'A baby whose genetic makeup has been artificially selected by genetic engineering combined with IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) to ensure the presence or absence of particular genes or characteristics.' The process involves fertilizing the egg by the sperm in a test tube outside the mother's womb, and altering the genes. Admittedly, the purpose is noble (to eradicate genetic disorders and diseases), but where will the human race really draw the line? Who is to stop affluent families (for this is an expensive procedure) from using these methods to change their child's eye color, or to make him a professional football player, or to make her slender and gorgeous? The designer babies debate is more about how we are learning to sidestep nature, and how this could crumble society as we know it today.
The process of selecting the traits and characteristics of children is also known as Pre-implementation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), and here the embryo is checked for genetic deficiencies before it is returned to the mothers' womb. Suitable alterations can be made along the way, and the repercussions that this will have is open for debate.
The human race must stop trying to play God by messing with genetics and embryo alterations, and this is exactly what the designer babies debates are all about.
An Ugly Outlook
The designer babies ethical considerations come into play because of the effects this procedure will have. Families that can afford these alterations will be few, and this will only increase the disparity between the various social classes. This will ultimately result in a segregation between the superior 'modified' humans, and the pure but inferior ones. Sooner or later, this situation will turn ugly. Moreover, the diversity of the gene pool and human genetics will be affected, and this may even lead to a major percentage of the human race being wiped out completely by some major disease. All this is without even taking into consideration the effect this procedure will have on the child.
People involved in designer babies debates sometimes forget to think about the effects these alterations will have on the children. After all, if you are tweaking one gene here, then another gene somewhere else must be shifting to balance the event. This could ultimately lead to a situation where each child is programmed to do certain tasks, and is unable to do anything else, much in the way Mr. Huxley envisaged. Moreover, the freedom of the child to choose a profession of his choice in the future, will also be severely diminished. The ethical repercussions of this are not very pleasant....
The human race must stop trying to play God by messing with genetics and embryo alterations, and this is exactly what the designer babies debates are all about. Though it is too late to eradicate these procedures entirely, we can still do our best to control the situation. The purpose may be noble (to eradicate genetic diseases), but in the wrong hands this knowledge could be devastating. And human beings do have a tendency to allow such knowledge to ultimately fall into the wrong hands.