BRAVE NEW BABIES
An opinion piece by Lori Andrews, May 2006
Americans increasingly approach procreation with a shopping-list mentality. Each year, 60,000 births occur through donor insemination, with many people choosing their future babies according to the hair color, hobbies, SAT scores, height (for men) and weight (for women) of the donors. An ad in a Stanford University newspaper offered $100,000 for an egg donor with "proven college-level athletic ability."
Some parents abort girl fetuses because they want a boy. In one study, 12 percent of parents said they would abort a fetus with a genetic predisposition to obesity. In California, a court suggested that a disabled child could sue her parents for not aborting her.
Imagine the lawsuits! A daughter might sue her folks for not making her prettier by paying for a "better" egg donor—or for not using genetic enhancement to make her smarter.
As technology evolves, parents-to-be will have even more control over the traits of their offspring. Scientists have already put human cancer genes in mice and firefly genes in tobacco plants, causing them to glow in the dark. Now, genetic engineering is being proposed for human embryos. Where might that lead?
In a Louis Harris poll sponsored by the March of Dimes, 43 percent of respondents said they approve of changing the makeup of human cells to improve babies' physical characteristics; 42 percent approved upgrading children intellectually. Another survey found that more than one third of people would like to genetically control their child's sexual preference.
The designing of children is occurring subtly as a result of individual choices through an open market. Thousands of couples turn to the Internet to find genetic parents for their future children. Parents-to-be view pictures of sperm and egg donors, listen to tapes of donors' voices and review pages of descriptions of their physical features, their hobbies, their SAT scores and their philosophic viewpoints. At one Web site, couples bid on the eggs of attractive models. Can purchasing single genes—rather than a person's whole packet—be far behind?
How are we, as a society, going to judge such desires? Should certain genetic manipulations be allowed and others not? Should parents be able to buy height-enhancing genes for their embryos? Will that be viewed more like cheating in sports or more like signing your child up for private tennis lessons? Is genetically protecting a child against a deadly disease appropriate but manipulating genes for cosmetic purposes not? Should parents be permitted to give their infants genes for traits that humans have never had before, like the ability to run at the speed of a cheetah? Would it be ethical to clone a human being? And if the designer babies did not turn out the way the parents had planned, should lemon laws for children allow them to get their money back? How will parents feel if they pay for "smart" sperm, and "E=mc2" isn't the first thing out of their child's mouth? Already, one couple sued a sperm bank when the babies weren't as handsome as they had wanted.
People need to take a close look at the technologies and work to regulate them. Right now, some of the proposed technologies will put the resulting children at great risk. In animal research, one-third of the cloned animals died shortly before or shortly after birth. Genetic interventions on embryos can lead to cancers and sterility. And, even if it were possible to scientifically perfect techniques such as cloning and genetic enhancements, the cost of the technologies-from $300,000 to over $1 million-would make them accessible only to the rich. If wealthy individuals genetically enhance their children to be smarter or taller, other people would feel pressured to do the same, just to allow their kids to keep up. "Normality" today may be "disability" tomorrow. The children of the poor would fall even further behind.
Ours is going to be the generation that writes the laws to govern these technologies. Will we be living among cloned human beings? Watch sports played by genetically enhanced athletes? Build special hospitals for the children who suffer harm as scientists iron out the problems in the experiments that are needed to apply these techniques to humans? FROZEN ANGELS offers a glimpse into our genetic future. Viewers should consider whether we are creating a society that we wouldn't want to inhabit.
Want More Information?
The Human Genome Project site has good basic information about genetics that can be understood by non-experts. The Council for Responsible Genetics considers the impacts of biotechnology from a public interest perspective, while the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) officially represents the biotech industry and its constituent companies.
The Human Genome Project has a gene therapy page where the interested nonscientist can learn about gene therapy. The site contains a section on ethics.
The Center for Genetics and Society has a website with a section on policies, perspectives, news articles, and information on germline intervention technologies.
The American Journal of Bioethics website provides journal articles and resources on bioethics, including germline intervention. It includes weekly news updates, editorials, and featured target articles.
The Council for Responsible Genetics is a nonprofit organization dedicated to distributing accurate information about biotechnology. The website includes the online magazine "Genewatch," which is dedicated to monitoring the social, ethical and environmental consequences of biotechnology, as well as an entire section focusing on human genetic manipulation and cloning.
The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology is an organization dedicated to research and training in molecular biology and biotechnology. The ICGEB promotes "safe use of biotechnology" and is a major resource for technical information, including research and training sources.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) represents biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations in the United States and numerous other countries. BIO has developed an "Oversight of Gene Therapy: A Position Paper of the Biotechnology Industry Organization."
Gene Watch is a nonprofit group in the United Kingdom that monitors genetic technology, with special focus on the public interest aspects.
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory conducts research in cancer, genomics, plant genetics, and neurobiology. The website includes the Dolan DNA Learning Center site, which is a resource for educational information about DNA.
The website for Global Lawyers and Physicians for Human Rights provides information on national and international legislation regarding human cloning and germline intervention. This site has a clickable "genetics database map" which allows the user to click on regions of the world and get information about policies and resources in that area relating to cloning and germline intervention.
The Disabled Peoples International (DPI) Position Statement on Bioethics and Human Rights offers statements on the potential implications of genetic interventions to the disabled community.
Human Genetics Alert, a public interest group based in London, has a number of position papers, press releases, and cartoons dedicated to the implications of biotechnology, including germline intervention.
Lori Andrews and Nigel Cameron founded The Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future. Information on genetics, reproductive technology, and nanotechnology can be found at thehumanfuture.org.
All content © 2006-08 by Lori Andrews.