Genetic engineering has made it possible to cherry-pick and even alter human embryos so that particular features become more or less likely to be born in the individual. One technique intended to maximise the number of genes available (which has long been known to lead to healthier beings from the anecdotal evidence of the dangers of inbreeding in humans and other animals) is to insert genetic material from more than two people into an egg. Despite the bizarre outcome of children being born with more than two genetic parents this practice really represents little more than a fast-forwarding of natural selection (my children’s children would have both mine and my partners genes and their partners for example). In my opinion, this is an inert science at the very worst and potentially useful. Another technique is the selection of zygotes (eggs and sperm) bearing desired or not bearing unwanted bio markers. These markers could indicate anything from predisposition to particular illnesses to physical attributes or intelligence. I find this technique more challenging ethically.
My concerns about designer babies constructed using the latter technique are scientific and social. Socially, as a mother I have major concerns for children whose parents have very prescriptive expectations of them. I believe that a parent has no ownership of a child (thus no moral choice in who that child will become) but a duty to nurture the child as they find them. Where parents elect to choose physical or mental attributes for their child I worry both for the child for whom the experiment didn’t work out and whether they’ll be affected by their parents possible disappointment and the child who comes out exactly as per order to parents who may, as a result, expect their child to continue to develop within their narrow parameters of ideal. As opposed to rather superficial preferences such as eye colour, height or even IQ it is far more understandable for parents to seek to protect their children from the likelihood of inherited illnesses however I still think we need to practice caution here. In Dmitri K. Belyaev silver fox experiments in selective breeding (started in 1969) foxes displaying greater docility were chosen to parent successive generations. The results, as hypothesised by Belyaev, showed not only domesticated temperaments but changes in physical appearance- fur patterns changed and the foxes gained droopy ears and curly tails that are rarely if ever seen in wild populations. What this shows is that genes have many functions that may be totally unrelated to the primary function. Now, of course, we know far more about genes than Belyaev, we have ‘mapped the human genome’ but it would be a fallacy to believe that our awareness is significantly more than rudimentary. As a friend pointed out: what parent would not want to spare their child the difficulties associated with any illness? But we do not know what we could be depriving them and their communities of (either as a direct or indirect result of the illness) in the process of determining genetic information. I suffer mental illness and I’ll be devastated if I’ve passed that on to my progeny but I feel that it’s made me a ‘better’ and more valuable person and I’d never change it in myself- should I welcome the promise of changing it for my offspring? Naomi Wolf is, as you may be aware, an academic, journalist and activist of illustrious career. In her adulthood she discovered that she’d been born with a very mild form of Spina Bifida whose effects she successfully treated. Had the gene responsible for that been removed and replaced with a ‘healthy’ gene would she have been the same person and achieved what she has? We just don’t know. Our ability to treat illness improves everyday. Furthermore I suggest that what we view as illness (particularly mental) may be subjective and could potentially come to be viewed as strengths within nurturing societies and/or in the future. Autism can be challenging but there is a greater prevalence of the ‘illness’ in the worlds role call of genius, notably of course Einstein. Currently due to the exponential increase in data we are exposed to (internet) our preferred methods of presentation are becoming less linguistic and more visual. Visual thinking is often seen in Autistics and could easily surpass traditional academia in it’s usefulness to society.
I do see a place for this, even now despite our ignorance, there are fatal complications that will be just swept away and lives saved but I feel this should be carefully managed and I really hope no one makes any mistakes.