"Designer Babies," Technophobia, and Scientific Responsibility

Mar 22, 2015 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown

image by: Roadhunter

Throughout history any advancement seen as altering "the natural way of things" has met with fear and resistance. Is the advent of "designer babies" just what's next in this tradition, or is there legitimate cause for concern over this and related developments?

The term itself smacks of both haute couture and dystopian horror, a likely foreshadowing of the combination of popularity and controversy to come. "Designer babies," they're being called, and they're coming to a womb near you.

The term designer babies dates back at least as far as the turn of the millennium, when bioethics professor Glenn McGee, author of The Perfect Baby: A Pragmatic Approach to Genetics, addressed an array of looming biotechnology-based controversies.

But the writing was on the wall much earlier. Debates about eugenics began over a century earlier (long before the Nazis got a hold of the idea). Then came the discovery and increasingly better understanding of DNA. In the 1970s the first genetically-modified organism (GMO) was produced. The first mammal was cloned in 1996. By 2003, scientists had mapped the entire human genome.

From these and related advancements, it was clear that the only basic question about humans created via means other than the old-fashioned way was not "Can we?" but "Should we?"

That question reached its most recent peak of newsworthiness last month when the United Kingdom became the first country to legally allow the creation of babies from three parents.

The technique, called cytoplasmic transfer, was developed to allow women who are either infertile or have mitochondrial disease to conceive healthy children by injecting a donor's mitochondria and cytoplasm into the birth-mother's egg. And it's nothing new. The first child born of three biological parents is now a healthy 17-year-old, and an estimated 30 children were born in the U.S. by way of such measures before the federal government banned the practice in 2002.

But with last month's vote in Parliament, the world will soon be seeing a lot more such children. It's a development that doesn't sit well with some religious organizations. The Church of England and the Catholic Church in England and Wales, for example, urged Parliament not to pass the new law. Expect more of the same on this side of the Pond when the U.S. revisits the question, as it inevitably will.

Cytoplasmic transfer is merely one of numerous issues related to genetic engineering (the preferred term of the scientific community today) that government and the general public are being forced to confront. And as Alan Trounson, a pioneer in the field of in vitro fertilization (IVF), noted seven years ago in light of the 30th anniversary of the birth of the first child conceived via IVF, "Ethics keeps moving. What was once seen as dangerous goes on to be seen as within the confines of acceptable risk."

But what qualifies as risk, and how much risk is acceptable, are open questions. While medical risk is fairly clear-cut in theory, qualitative societal risk is an entirely separate issue. Should we worry about a creating a society in which we can, for example, pre-select many of our offspring's' traits? Once the province of science-fiction tales such as the 1997 film Gattaca, that potential future is pretty much now.

"Since the 1990s, the prospect of futuristic technologies such as human cloning or selecting for superhuman traits have stoked public fears about 'designer babies,'" wrote LiveScience writer Tia Ghose in 2014. "Back then, most of these techniques were purely speculative, but now several methods for genetic selection are either already possible or will soon become so. For instance, parents can choose to screen embryos created via in vitro fertilization (IVF) for sex or diseases, a process known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis."

As uncomfortable as it may be for some, "designer babies" are part of the shape of things to come. And it seems just as inevitable that eventually many will get here without ever being carried in a woman's womb. That prospect was visited nearly 20 years ago by pediatrician Perri Klass in The New York Times (although it was envisioned by futurists like Aldous Huxley more than a half-century before that).

"Eighteen years ago, in-vitro fertilization was tabloid news: test-tube babies!" noted Klass. "Now IVF is a standard therapy, an insurance wrangle, another medical term instantly understood by most lay people."

Alarmists about such developments would do well to heed such historical phenomena. Possibilities that fill one generation with fear become quotidian realities for the next, generally without society's being any worse for wear—and often quite the contrary.

Technology itself is value neutral. Harnessing the power of the atoms allowed for the development of both electric lights and nuclear bombs.

Moreover, these developments may have been inevitable. Science is not the province of what should be done. Rather, scientific theory and experiment probe the workings of the physical world, an investigation that takes place almost contemporaneously with the search for applications for that knowledge. If it can be done, it is a virtual certainty that someone will do it.

Certainly that does not mean we should complacently accept everything that is done on the grounds that it can be done. But society should be mindful not to scapegoat science when the source of our discomfort is the implications of our existence that science reveals.

You may, for example, squirm at the idea of clones. But it is nature, not science that permits cloning. There's no reason to kill the messenger.


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com


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