Dec 3, 2008

Designer Babies

The term 'Designer babies' has been largely used by the popular media (mostly in a derisive way) to define the babies who are genetically tailored in the zygotic phase in order to eliminate the risk of known genetically transmitted diseases and to increase the capacity for certain skills/straits when the child grows up. The U.S. populace is divided over the concept because of the conservative belief of 'playing the God' and socio-ethical issues. My stand on this issue is a policy-based support for the genetically-bettered babies.

      Firstly, it is the responsibility of the parents to do the best for their children. One moral/bioethical question that is being asked about designing babies is that it is like violating the rights of a human being and fiddling with his/her rights without permission. I consider that, from the moment a man and woman decide to have a baby, they are interfering with the right of another human being, which is of course not present. By choosing a partner of their own liking, by eating food of their choice during pregnancy, by consuming medicines that would keep the baby free of certain infectious diseases, by choosing a medical facility based on their liking for the pregnancy treatment and child delivery, and by opting for natural or caesarian method for delivery, the parents decide what is best for their child. The society accepts all of that, even though many of such practices have been constantly evolving over the past several decades.

      I presume there will be some opponents to this concept, as there are for other controversial concepts such as abortion. It is important for one to be able to defend their decision to the opponents who might very well be relatives, coworkers and/or friends. My defense would be along the following lines: The society doesn’t question if a bankrupt or extremely poor couple decides to conceive a child; no squabbles if a jailbird wants to become a parent; also, the society allows the parents of a newborn or a young child to separate upon divorce; it even permits homosexuals to adopt a child. The future of the child or the consent of the child is never considered, because for the society, the parents are those who become more important than the tender mind of the child. 

If one argues that, by genetically doctoring a child, we are tinkering with the child’s freedom of life, I would say that so do all the cases mentioned above. Can we argue that, since a mother and father are required for the conception of a child, the child deserves to have both of them together at home, until he/she reaches a certain age? Can the society ban divorce of parented couple unless the child consents? Can the child sue the divorced or poor or homosexual parents for not providing him/her an ideal and peaceful environment at home? After all, the children didn’t plead the parents to give birth to/adopt them, did they? Under the terms ‘parental responsibility’, ‘parental freedom’ and ‘reproductive/biological urge’, we allow the parents to choose what they want.

       Similarly, in a competitive society, the responsibility to give birth a fittest possible child also comes under the responsibility of the parents. Granted, it is a game that can be played only by rich people; I wouldn’t know how much it would be possible for me to be able to spend for the genetic design of my child, but I would do my best to ensure that there is a somewhat level-playing field for my child. In that regard, I would like my child to be born without any physical and mental disabilities and with good intelligence. As long as the purpose of altering the natural genetics of a child is for the child’s betterment, I would support it and go for it. Other attributes such as gender, height, and other physical attributes are the qualities which are governed by me and my partner so I wouldn’t want that to be altered at all. Beauty and physical attributes are left out of the ‘betterment’ criterion, because I consider that beauty lies in the eyes of a beholder, and, what appears to be a positive attribute for one person need not be so for another. So, I would let nature take its own course in deciding those features for my child.

      Another concern raised by the opponents of this concept is, they feel that it would take away the excitement of watching children grow to their individual personality, and that it would negate the disease-fighting and adapting tendency of a person if he/she is largely disease-free. I correlate such resistances to the voices raised by the so-called ‘purist lovers’ of sports when technology was brought in to sort-out some on-field decisions, the verdict of which depended only on the referee/umpire’s decision. A famous English cricketer, WG Grace once mentioned to an umpire who had just given a bad decision, “People have come to see me bat, not to see you umpire”. Common sense prevailed, several sports have assimilated technology, and the quality of the sports has become better since then. Similarly, every caring parent will want the best possible life for their children; seeing the children struggle against a disease which could have been prevented, or not being able to excel in life because of limited intelligence would be akin to child abuse.

      Such advancements would mean that the level and intensity of competition among the members of the future generation will be quite difficult from what we see in our times. Youngsters and adults, devoid of worries about major acquired diseases and armed with better intelligence will constantly be thriving to excel one another. That doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. One such scientist endowed with super-intelligence might invent a drug for HIV; another physician might invent quick and complete cure for brain tumor; a nanotechnologist might design cheap and highly efficient solar cells or motor vehicles which would save our planet from burning of fossil fuels. 

Also, intellectuals along the same league as Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Alva Edison, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Richard Feynman, Leonardo Da Vinci, Beethoven, and   Isaac Newton may be born. The possibilities are endless. Is it something to be worried? Such people have made the world a better place to live, so why can’t we have more of them in the future? It doesn’t mean that we can expect all these and more such breakthroughs happen by default or in a jiffy. The emphasis would still be on good education, parental care, responsible upbringing, inculcation of moral values and respect for fellow humans.

      There might be some developments such as extra-fast athleticism, super-durable sportsmen, and extra-strong anti-social elements. In addition, there is a possibility that, those who cannot afford to have the genetically modified babies will continue to produce the ‘normal’ ones, leading to a divided society based on some new factor. But these are some of the issues that the politicians and sociologists need to consider and work about. American history suggests that, when the cars were introduced for the first time, only the rich could afford it initially; but the society as a whole started working very hard with a goal-driven desire to own a car. This led to the industrial revolution and the U.S. has never looked back since then. Such a phenomenon is highly likely to recur, since the stakes are quite high this time around. And America being a free society is always more welcoming to new developments in science and technology than dwell over the negative repercussions. 

      I think it is human nature to be circumspect when an extraordinary breakthrough is just around the corner. It is more so the case with conservatives and those who place religion above everything else. The numerous medical advancements that the genetic engineering promises must allow its opponents to let the scientists do their job under the watchful eyes of the Government and eminent scholars.


polynag said...

Interesting thoughts and arguments.
I have nothiing to argue or suggest as of now.

matrix said...

Thought provoking piece.

If intelligence can be genetically modified, then everyone would agr ee with Entity Theory of Intelligence, which says intelligence is fixed and it's one's natural ability. This would prevent one to increase their intelligence through effort.

ramya said...

Quiet Interesting and thought provoking post.. I would definitely not go for it even if i can afford it.. I wud stay happy with my kid's genetically acquired traits. If i feel my kid is not quiet intelligent or not able to compete with other children, I wud put him in some various programs that ll help to improve child's IQ...
" Another concern raised by the opponents of this concept is, they feel that it would take away the excitement of watching children grow to their individual personality, and that it would negate the disease-fighting and adapting tendency of a person if he/she is largely disease-free."
Yeah.. I do feel this.. but i dont understand ur cricket correlation.. sorry i dont know cricket..

When there are other disease preventing techniques like vaccination n stuff y worry abt diseases n go for it..

I want intelligence to come naturally along with the guidance n knowledge from the ppl around the child n not thru genes..

ramya said...

Sorry a small correction at the end.. not thru articial genes..

vm said...

Doctor: Are you ok with disease free gene for your baby?

Indian hubby: That's not what we looking for. We thought you would have doctor-to-be gene for our baby

Indian wifey: IIT-engineer-to-be gene is alrite too

Raju said...

Nagesh, :) hmm.. ok..
Matrix, well.. intelligence cannot be completely modified by genetics.. Genetic interference will lead only to an increment in the intelligence. I don't think any temporal study has been done to check the effect in a quantitative way. So, leaving everything to genetics would be equivalent to leaving all the events of one's life to fate..

Raju said...

Ramya, :) A lot of people think along similar lines as yours, which is quite understandable. Every living being's objective has been to spread its gene to the next generation. So, it is understandable that when some tweaking is done with the gene-transfer, it is met with resistance. Over 99% of one's abilities would be through the combination of gene-acquired intelligene, bringing up, parental care, teaching, companionship, and mentoring.
Vm, :) That's a good reflection of our societal and parental pressure..

matrix said...

Even if the gene acts only as a precursor, there is still a huge difference between those who have it and those who don't. Precursor+ Effort would not give the exact outcome as Effort only. Thus, one can simply say " no matter how much effort I throw in, I am no where comparable to those with the gene(precursor)".

Raju said...

Matrix, hmmm.. I dont think so. I still value the efforts of hardwork.

Me too said...

Whenever people commented on my older one's thin frame, I used to joke that I was going for a designer baby next and pick all the right genes!
Like most scientific breakthroughs, though everything starts with a good purpose, the danger of it getting commercialised/abused is a huge concern.

Raju said...

Aparna, hmm.. agree with you. When the positives appear to be in abundance, it is the responsibility of the Government to come up with the strict regulations to guide everyone concerned in the righteous path.