This article is the second in a series on twenty-first-century ethical issues related to human genetics. To read the previous article, click here.
Human reproduction is a roulette wheel, a game of chance in which the child embodies bits and pieces of their biological parents, forming a never-before-seen fusion of the two people. The element of surprise in reproduction is what makes it so special. But what if this game were a codified system? What if you knew exactly who your child would be and what they would look like, because you’d planned it that way?
Enter “designer babies.” A “designer baby” is a person prenatally genetically programmed with specific genetic sequences to contain desired physical and mental traits. As the technological capacity for human gene editing increases, we draw nearer to this phenomenon every day. The current innovation in genetic engineering is stem cell-derived gametes, where non-differentiated embryonic cells are edited to create gametes. This is an option that could one day open doors for same-sex couples to reproduce. Also, parents now have the option “to select and design embryos with disease-preventing traits.” But no baby has yet been customized head-to-toe.
The primary gene editing technology today is a “bacterial defense system” called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, commonly known as CRISPR. Different CRISPR systems can function as genetic “scissors” that attach to DNA primers and then cut out target sections of DNA in order to duplicate or discard them. Now, newer versions of CRISPR can edit single a DNA base at a time without cutting the sequence; these new CRISPR varieties more closely resemble pencils than they do scissors.
The scientific community has to make substantial progress before CRISPR is foolproof and safe enough to use on human embryos. Yet the years of laboratory trial and error could reap tremendous rewards, for CRISPR could be used to eradicate dangerous diseases from the human condition. An excellent safety benefit of CRISPR editing on embryonic stem cells is that it not only creates an individual immune to certain diseases, but it also immunizes the individual’s offspring. As written by Bowdoin student Hanna Baldecchi in an article on CRISPR,“If a modified embryo develops into an adult organism, that organism will have modified egg or sperm cells, meaning that it will be incapable of producing offspring with the mutation for which it was modified…The disease is thus eliminated from the genetic line, eradicated from existence.”
Modifying embryos to prevent hereditary diseases could greatly benefit humanity, providing people with longer, healthier lives. However, the possibility to modify embryos for purely superficial and aesthetic purposes raises a frightening new set of ethical dilemmas. We already live in a racist, sexist, classist, ableist society that makes life much harder than it needs to be for individuals deemed too unattractive, too weak, or simply too different. Imagine how these inequities would be heightened if only those already rich and powerful people had access to genetically modified embryos. It would grow increasingly difficult to compete for resources and jobs against hyper-perfect babies modified to be as close to flawless as any human could get.
Columnist Alex Salkever describes how genetic inequities, due to their hereditary nature, could be much more long-lasting and far-reaching than current socially constructed inequities:
Some argue that the government simply does not have the right to legislate how parents handle their children’s DNA. In this view, as long as these enhancements can be proven safe, then the government should not regulate them any more than it should regulate the ability of the wealthy to pay for expensive personal trainers to improve their physiques or expensive math tutors to help their children get into Ivy League schools.
But unlike personal trainers or math tutors, genetic modifications to embryos will provide benefits that are passed from generation to generation. Over time, allowing generation after generation to choose to improve their chances of endowing their offspring with valuable traits via either CRISPR or PGD could have a compounding impact of more inequality.
Furthermore, a society rapidly filling with perfect babies would only add to current widespread struggles with self-esteem, body image, and self-worth. Consider such bleak statistics as these: in a 2017 poll, only thirty-three percent of the Americans surveyed responded that they were happy. In a 2014 poll where Americans were asked which of “three pillars,” mind, body, or soul, they most wanted to improve, forty-seven percent of those surveyed said they wanted to improve their bodies. Frighteningly enough, these issues manifest themselves early in life, even though youth is romanticized as a golden age that is more carefree than adulthood. In a survey of Arizona State University students by the American College Health Association, only 46.5 percent of students said they were satisfied with their physical appearance, and sixty-two percent of students were trying to either gain or lose weight. The deep-rooted psychological challenges of humans’ self-perceived shortcomings and uselessness must be addressed before we even consider throwing an entirely new breed of human into the ring.
Searching for the ever-elusive approval of others only makes one’s self-esteem worse. In a study conducted by University of Michigan psychologist Jennifer Crocker, PhD, she found that “college students who based their self-worth on external sources, including appearance, approval from others and even their academic performance, reported more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and had higher levels of drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders.” Creating a new class of hyper-perfect people would only heighten these negative sentiments. How could a naturally bred, highly flawed human ever receive enough social approval from a “perfect” person designed solely to be better and more successful than them? And could a naturally bred person ever keep up with the achievements of this designer-bred peer, achievements rooted in a genetic framework for unstoppable talent?
A cornerstone of humanity is its flaws. We are all imperfect and made of random genetic assortments. Parenting is a process of learning to love and support whatever genetic combination appears by chance in a child. Our humanity lies in the shared experience of each human learning to work within the physical constraints of and socially capitalize upon the body and life that they have been given. Deliberately breeding perfect babies to feel superior to others and inhabit more competitive spaces and social spheres would only damage our already stratified society. Now is the time to forge meaningful human connections and create healthier, safer, more peaceful lives. The last thing we need is to engineer new problems.