Designer Babies: The Ethics of Gene Selection

In the dull, grey, squat building that housed the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, the World State processed and hatch people from preserved ovaries through what they describe as the Bokanovsky Process. “A bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before” to accomplish the State’s goal of community, identity, and stability (Huxley, 17). Additionally, the hatchery will condition certain embryos and fetuses so that they will grow in a hierarchy: Alpha, Beta, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons with the Alphas seated at the top of the society where as the Epsilons were destined to work hard labor. 

This, of course, is from the famous sci fi book A Brave New World written by Aldous Huxley in 1932. Before the idea of conditioning people into a perfect race or anything of the sort was imagined. Of course, there were some social Dawrinists who set out with a distorted interpretation of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution – but until the 1930’s and 1940’s, the notion of altering or conditioning a child was a horror reserved only for sci fi books. But with scientific advancement, babies can be easily chosen, altered, and manipulated primarily to promote health and avoid bringing a child into the world who will suffer unnecessarily from a birth defect. There are plenty of cosmetic, medical, and other alterations that could be performed on an embryo prior to in vitro fertilization that will be investigated, but for simplicity, this paper will focus on the moral and ethical aspects of selecting genes for morality.

It is difficult to ignore the more taboo topics regarding gene selection as well as necessary to understand the ethical implications of taking the power away from chance, nature, or the gods. The topic of choosing embryos or genes based on appearance seems to turn off any audience from the prospect of using any sort of gene editing or selecting. But, ignoring the fact that natural selection has been selecting genes in humans for two hundred and fifty thousand years, one cannot ignore the modern medical procedures today that alters baby’s futures today. Indeed, this technology is not new. Prenatal genetic testing is routine to detect flaws and problems in developing fetuses. Chorionic villus sampling as well as first-trimester screening helps parents and doctors identify abnormalities such as Down syndrome and Trisomy-18 (Ossareh, 723). Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) has been around for decades and allows parents to assess the health of the genes within an embryo. Some clinics offer the ability to choose the sex or even to create a disability that is similar to the parent. Such is the case of Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCulough, deaf partners seeking a sperm donor, who were actively seeking a genetically deaf donor. They were informed that a defect such as deafness would be screened and rejected by clinics (Parker, 279). How can this be that parents are allowed to choose aspects of their child? There happens to be a reproductive and parental autonomy in the west, upheld in court, that protects parental decisions as long as they do not harm the child (Parker, 280) (Ossareh, 737). So what in these cases and especially in the extreme cases such as A Brave New World, makes people feel wrong about the process?

Regarding cosmetic alterations, there is a principle that is asserted that children should be able to choose for themselves and to make the decision to change one’s hair, skin, sex, or otherwise is purly individualistic. But this is yet another alteration that already occurs. Based on societal norms, baby genitalis is routinely mutilated. This stone-aged barbarism affects females in the Middle East and Africa, and affects males mostly in North America, the Middle East, and Africa. But this is a choice that is not only taken away from the child, it also causes iatrogenic psychological, physical, and emotional harm (Svoboda, 2017). Among the repugnant arguments in favor of infant mutilation, some argue that these alterations are good in that it helps the child fit in better and find a mate easier. There are plenty of other cases where choices are made for a child for the soul purpose of promoting a better future for them. Identity such as gender and sex are becoming increasingly taboo to choose for them and, in the case of congenital adrenal hyperplasia (where a baby is born with both sets of genitalia), parents often literelly make the choice for their baby in hopes they will just turn out to be the gender they have assigned (Emanuel, 2019). In a less extreme case of life altering decision making on behalf of the child, some parents actively choose certain names to help their baby in the future. It has become unfortunately common for black parents in America to choose ‘white names’ in order to ensure their child’s success. Studies show that having a “black-sounding name” tends to label them as troublemakers and makes them less hirable (Howard, 2015). But if even these serious decisions are taken away from the child and is deemed to be acceptable by wider society, then what is the ethical issue with gene editing or selecting at all?

To lay out an extreme example to make a point, consider the moral or ethical notion of a parent going out of their way to choose the very worst genes. In Hulu’s The Act, based on a true story, the mother Dee Dee Blanchard actively kept her daughter, Gypsy Rose, on medication and treated her for serious chronic disabilities that she did not have such as leukemia, asthma, and muscular dystrophy among many others for the sole purpose of taking care of her and to receive disability benefits. In this disturbing case, the mother often drugged her daughter, had a stomach tube implanted, kept her bald, and even had her teeth removed and replaced with veneers. Consider if Miss Blanchard had the option to fully choose any gene possible and was able to edit genes to choose to actually give her child chronic illnesses and disabilities? She could, as do the advocates of choosing to select disabilities like in the case of the deaf couple discussed above, and claim that they have reproductive autonomy and that these disabilities are an identity she wants her child to have. The very notion of choosing the put a child through pain, misfortune, and suffering rings highly unethical, immoral, and unjust. 

People feel outrage in these cases, not because a child was harmed in and of itself (after all, the child was altered before it was born), but because a norm was violated that unnecessarily causes “gratuitous suffering” (Parker, 280). Nita Farahany, philosopher at the University of Duke, asserted that “if we’re worried people will misuse science, we need to create safeguards – and an open public dialogue that ensures responsible use” (Hayden, 2013). But open public dialogue has already been had – the common value in this ethical dilemma, and indeed most ethical dilemmas, is the utilization of happiness. It is moral and ethical to use the medical advances to create people with the least amount of suffering possible. John Stuart Mills poetically states that “the fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility—to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing—unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being” (Mills, 1869). Scientist Stephen Hsu is performing research in the field of gene selecting and is “100% sure that a technology will eventually exist for people to evaluate their embryos or zygotes for quantitative traits, like height or intelligence. I don’t see anything wrong with that” (Hayden, 2013). And why should he? As long as parents and doctors are making educated decisions as to the best outcome for the child, then there is nothing wrong with gene selecting. The line to be drawn, and that has already been drawn, is the benefit of the child. If one were to select genes that would lower a person’s happiness or quality of life, it would be wrong – just as it would be right to choose a quality that would increase a person’s happiness and quality of life. The qualities and genes are decided to be good based on not only the happiness of the child and family, but also on what is acceptable. The line here is that if there is a cosmetic change that is deemed by society and community to be good, it cannot harm the person in anyway (think genital mutilation where it is deem appropriate, but creates harm).

Back to the topic at hand, if parents have the option of choosing an embryo with a more moral gene in it, following the reasoning so far, they ought to do it. Failing to do so and knowingly raising a less-moral child would not only harm the child’s future, but their own and their communities. Consider if scientists found a gene mutation or defect that made people pedophials – would it not be considered necessary and good to alter this defect? Replace pedophilia with murderer, klepto, or any other sort of negative characteristics or illness and it is clear that gene selecting is a duty to perform if it means promoting happiness and well-being in an individual.

Generally, the best argument for gene selection and, in this paper’s case, selecting for morality, the goal is a happier child. People have the moral sentiment to generally assert that parents have a moral duty to ensure that they raise their children to the best of their ability. It is held that “potential parents have a duty to have [a] child with the best opportunity of the best life, not because to fail to do so would harm the child, but because they have a moral duty to bring about the best lives they can” (Parker 280). Of course, if there was an opportunity to give one’s child a better life, parents should, and definitely do just about anything to make that happen. The recent college admission bribery scandal comes to mind. But choosing healthy, smart, and moral sperm donors, embryos, and genes also comes to mind. And if the goal of this selection is a healthier or happier child, then that is a moral decision. Arguing from a deontologist point of view, parents definitely have a duty to care for their children the best they can. And if selecting the best embryo or avoiding bad or malfunctioning genes is what it takes then parents seem to have an ethical duty to do that. This is even more so when considering just the consequences of the procedures from a utilitarian point of view. If avoiding a chromosomal deficiency or genetic defect will result in a happier person and happier parents, then there is no other ethical choice. If there were a gene that promotes morality in humans, it would be a mistake to not try to promote that in one’s own baby.

References

Emanuel, D. “Raising an intersex child” CNN Health April 15, 2019. Accessed November 6, 2019 from https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/13/health/intersex-child-parenting-eprise/index.html.

Hayden, E. C. “Taboo Genetics” Nature Journal Of Science, October 2, 2013. Accessed November 5, 2019 from https://www.nature.com/news/ethics-taboo-genetics-1.13858.

Howard, J. “New Study Confirms Depressing Truth about Names and Racial Bias” Huffington Post, October 8, 2018. Accessed November 6, 2019 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/black-sounding-names-study_n_561697a5e4b0dbb8000d687f

Mills, J. S. (1869) On Liberty. Accessed November 7, 2019 from https://www.bartleby.com/130/5.html.

Ossareh, T. “Would you like Blue Eyes with that? A Fundamental Right to Genetic Modification of Embryos” Columbia Law Review, Vol 117, No. 3 (April 2017), pp. 729 – 766).

Parker, M. “The Best Possible Child” Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol 33 No 5 (May, 2017), pp. 279-283.Svoboda S. J. “Nontherapeutic Circumcision of Minors as an Ethically Problematic Form of Iatrogenic Injury” AMA Journal of Ethics. 2017; 19(8). Pp. 815-824) doi:10.1001/journalofethics.2017.19.8.msoc2-1708.

Featured Image by Greg Klamt Design (2019). https://www.improbableworlds.com/brave-new-world/

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