If you were having a baby, would you prefer a boy or a girl? How about a child who’s cold and unemotional or warm and empathetic? Intelligent or average? Musically gifted or tone deaf? Extroverted or introverted? Kind or selfish?
We’re in the middle of a genetic revolution. We now know that most psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes, and it’s quickly becoming possible to test for more and more of these genes in embryos. Potentially, if couples—such as those going through IVF— wanted to determine several aspects of their child’s personality and talents, they could.
Fancy a child who’s likely to be altruistic? Then look for a version of the COMT gene. Want them to be faithful and enjoy stable relationships? Avoid a variant of AVPR1A. Steer clear of a certain type of the MA0A gene, too—it’s linked to higher levels of violence in children who often suffer abuse or deprivation. Screening embryos like this is illegal at present, but isn’t rational design something we should welcome? If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring—rather than consigning them to the natural lottery—then we should. Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?
Some people believe that babies are a gift, of God or nature, and that we shouldn’t mess with their genetic make-up. But most of us already implicitly reject this view. We’re routinely screening embryos and foetuses for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome, and there’s little public outcry. What’s more, few people protested at the decisions in the mid-2000s to allow couples to test embryos for inherited bowel and breast cancer genes, and this pushes us a lot closer to creating designer humans. Children with these genes are healthy. They don’t develop cancer until later in life and it’s often preventable.
A critical question to ask when considering whether to screen for some gene is: will it benefit the unborn child? It may not be entirely clear-cut as to whether it’s better to be lazy or hardworking, say, or monogamous or polygamous. But there are certain capacities that are good to have no matter what one wants to do in life— an excellent memory, for instance, or greater empathy with other people. A hot temper can land you in prison and destroy a life forever. If it were possible to genetically select good impulse control, we should do so.
Much of the unease about designer babies comes from the work of the 20th-century eugenics movement. It tried to use selective breeding to weed out criminals, the insane and the poor, based on the false belief that such conditions were caused only by genetic disorders. It reached its inglorious climax when the Nazis moved beyond sterilisation to exterminate the “genetically unfit”. But what was especially objectionable about this movement was the coercive imposition of a state vision for a healthy population. Modern eugenics, from testing for diseases to deciding whether you want a girl or boy, is voluntary. So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.
Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential within the next five years we may be alcoholism, psychopathy and dispositions to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children. They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others. That doesn’t necessarily imply that people should be coerced into making a choice, but we should encourage them.
The announcement this summer of the very first whole-genome sequencing of a foetus means that within the next five years we may be able to screen for every gene that determines who we are physically and psychologically. Whether we like it or not, the future of humanity is in our hands now. Rather than fearing genetics, we should embrace it. We can do better than chance.
The full article by Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor in practical ethics at Oxford University, appears in this September’s Reader’s Digest, on sale from today.
[picture credit: Childsplayx3]