Thursday, May 07, 2009

Build-a-Bear Babies

The May 2009 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN has a one-page essay on the ethics of designer genes, quoting from a NEW YORK DAILY NEWS ARTICLE that referred to reproductive technology producing “Build-a-Bear babies” to order. It’s only a matter of time before clinics offering in vitro fertilization will enable parents to select not only the sex of a baby but such superficial traits as eye and hair color. As SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN puts it, the very idea evokes the specters of “Brave New World and, of course, the Nazis’ quest for a blond, blue-eyed race of Aryans.”

One concern mentioned in this essay—“will selection of traits perceived to be desirable end up diminishing variability within the gene pool, the raw material of natural selection”—strikes me as too far-fetched to worry about. Too few families will be able to afford these services to leave a trace on the DNA of the planet’s total population. A more plausible social problem would be, as many SF authors have speculated, that a genetically enhanced elite minority might exercise privileges and status over the masses who can’t afford designer children.

Personally, I have no moral qualms about gene manipulation in principle. I don’t believe all reproductive technology is “against nature” or blasphemous, any more than pacemakers, dialysis, or bionic limbs are. Nor do I believe an embryo before the implantation stage of development is an individual with personal rights (although of course it should still be handled with respect). Lines, however, must be drawn, and where should we draw them?

Granted that such technology may ethically and lawfully be practiced at all, its use to prevent genetically based illness and deformity seems obviously right. The more severe the affliction, the more acceptable intervention would be. On the related topic of sex selection, if a particular sex is chosen to avoid a sex-linked inherited disorder, that choice seems a perfectly legitimate goal. How about conceiving a baby specifically designed as a tissue donor for a gravely ill sibling (which has already been done)? Here the lines get fuzzier. Using a human being for an instrumental purpose, in principle, violates human dignity, yet if the parents are planning to have another baby anyway, why not include that benefit?

More vexed questions arise on points such as genetic engineering to conceive a boy or girl simply because of a preference for that sex. Many people also have reservations about designing an embryo for high intelligence (if that choice could be made—at present, we don’t know enough about the nature and origins of “intelligence”). I admit I’d find that prospect appealing. Others would, if possible, want to endow a child with musical, artistic, or athletic talent. In my opinion, a lot depends on whether these decisions would be made for the child’s happiness or the parents’ pride. Which leads to the slippery slope of ordering physical appearance from a menu of traits to produce a child who matches a cultural model of “beauty.” Moreover, I see a significant difference between an attempt to infuse an embryo with certain traits and a prior determination to destroy any embryo (or abort any fetus) that doesn’t measure up to the ideal.

According to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, the U.S. currently has “no binding rules” for the application of fertility technology. The U.K. has the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority to license and regulate clinics. Aside from obviously recklessly unsafe practices such as the notorious “octomom” case, I’d be dubious of any attempt to restrict most of these choices by law. Again, few couples could afford to seek genetic manipulation for frivolous purposes, fewer still would want to bother, and anyway clinics would establish their own ethical codes and might often refuse such requests. My main concern about “Build-a-Bear babies” is that a child designed to embody the parents’ ideal of their “perfect” offspring might not live up to expectations. In the world as we know it, no children (or parents!) are perfect. What would it do to familial relationships if perfection were expected as an entitlement?

Margaret L. Carter (

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and useful article Margaret.

    My current WIP is the first in a series where humans are taken to another planet. Here they find that millenia ago, seeders who had deposited humans throughout the galaxy are living.

    They are not as advanced as us in the way of building machines and have concentrated more on building specific body types for particulare jobs.

    Hence their appearances are now as diverse as dogs are on Earth.

    My heroes won't find this out till my next book as the first one is taken up with their adventures getting there.

    So I can play around with all the "what ifs" when your fears of these things happening on earth actually have occurred.

    I don't see it necessarily as just breeding a super race, like the aryans the nazis dreamed of. More specialised, eg small albinos for mining, other for diving.

    Where we have made machines to do jobs, they have bred people.

    The other element is that because all breeding is artifical they don't have sex or understand the concept of love.

    Lots of possibilities.