I recently published two articles here that addressed issues related to parental efforts to control the gender and other characteristics of their offspring. The first dealt with gender-selection abortion, a widespread practice in mostly Asian nations where male children are preferred. The second discussed human cloning, a reproductive technique that takes most of the uncertainty out of the reproductive process by using cells from a parent’s body to make a new individual.
Those two articles were written several years ago, and earth-shaking developments have occurred since that time in knowledge of the human genome, and the ability to “edit” genes to eliminate heritable diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, albinism, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few. The gene-editing tool called CRISPR can be used to do this. At the present time, it is still under development, and experiments with human genetic material are not permitted, but this technology is advancing rapidly. In the not-too-distant future it will be possible for prospective parents to sit down with a genetic consultant and “design” their baby from scratch, rather than start with their own genetic material and edit it, or rely on the old-fashioned roll of the genetic roulette wheel.
There is a lot of concern about this, both secular and religious. Nightmare scenarios are envisioned where evil governments design a super-warrior and then replicate him to make an army of millions that will conquer and enslave the world. Or psychopaths who construct a monstrosity with three legs and two heads. What if a university that wants to be a football power commissions a bunch of loyal alumni couples to incubate super-athletes? Number 1 AP ranking guaranteed…until all the other schools do it too…and then a “normal” kid can just forget about playing sports. He wouldn’t have a chance. Will all girls be required to have big boobs, a nice round rear end and a tiny waist if they want to be socially acceptable?
And yet, the potential benefits of eliminating all those terrible, debilitating heritable diseases is alluring. What about a particular ethnic group that happens to have a heredity of big, hooked noses on their women. Most girls with such an “affliction” are encouraged to have a painful surgery called a “nose job” when they reach puberty. If tweaking a couple of genes could give them a nose like Greta Garbo, wouldn’t that be a better solution? Advances in science often have potential for both benefits and harm to society. Nuclear power comes to mind as a prime example.
There are other legitimate concerns. In a society that is already suffering from a growing dichotomy between wealthy elites and the poor peasants, an expensive procedure that produces a genetically advantaged class will only worsen the problem. Will social pressures aimed at producing stereotypical Barbies and Kens with IQ’s of 140 narrow the genetic diversity, and cause a degradation of the human genome?
I have saved the religious objections for last. When religious couples celebrate the happy event of a birth, they say they have been “blessed” with a child. The blessing is the work of God, of course, who is responsible for the creation of all life according to their beliefs. What would they say about some uppity scientists who take over God’s work and make babies according to their own formula? Horrors! Blasphemy! Burn in Hell!
Nobody knows how this will turn out, but trying to suppress such an attractive technology will be futile. If we ban it in this country, other countries who do not share our moral, ethical or religious values will be happy to provide the service and collect the profits. If it can be done, it will be done. Like nuclear nonproliferation, it’s a losing battle.
The best we can hope for is to slow the development of this technology until some safeguards can be put in place…safeguards that are accepted by ALL nations. It won’t work unless everybody signs on.
Good luck with that.
There is a lot more to say about this. When the genome contents of future generations are determined by social customs, nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism and all the other unsavory characteristics of modern society, how will that affect the long-term viability of our species? Are we headed for a genetic trainwreck? The well-tested method of combining the chromosomes of sex partners, and then subjecting the result to the crapshoot of mutation followed by natural selection is undoubtedly safer. But a lot of suffering could be eliminated if we can find a middle path that takes advantage of our growing knowledge of genetics without becoming the victims of unintended consequences.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.