“What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be human? I cannot help but suspect that at one time in the history of thinking that people believed that it meant that we were spiritual and that we could make choices and were capable of aspiring to higher ideals. Like maybe loyalty or maybe faith... Or maybe even love.
But now we are told by people who think they know, that we vary from amoeba only in the complexity of our makeup and not in what we essentially are. They would have us think as Dysart said that we are forever bound up in certain genetic reins- that we are merely products of the way things are and not free - not free to be the people who make them that way. They would have us see ourselves as products so that we could believe that we were something to be made - something to be used and then something to be disposed of. Used in their wars, used for their gains and then set aside when we get in their way.” Rich Mullins
You are ushered into a comfortable room with warm lighting. A well-dressed representative directs you to a chair and hands you a tablet. On the screen, you select the character traits, physical attributes, and even the personality of your child. Do you want a boy or a girl? What about its eye color? Height? IQ? Once all the available options and desired upgrades are selected, you are told that your child will be ready in nine months.
As far-fetched as this scenario may seem, science promises that the first completely made-to-order child is less than thirty years away. The philosophical implications of such a society are easy to recognize, but often ignored by those advocating for its arrival.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is nothing new. Ever since Dr. Robert Edwards and Dr. Patrick Steptoe helped bring about the first successful birth of a baby conceived in a laboratory, IVF usage has grown in the United States and other western nations. In 2012, more than 61,000 IVF babies were born in the US. IVF promises couples unable to have children a chance of creating a baby together. Through the use of donor sperm and/or eggs, same-sex couples are also able to utilize IVF to start their families.
Though initially controversial, most of the controversy over IVF has dissipated as its usage has become more widespread. What has not received as much attention in the press, however, are the recent advancements in genetic research that promise a whole new frontier for and beyond IVF: genetically customized children.
The promise of genetic research is the ability to discover the tiny variations in our DNA that result in cancer, intelligence, height, and any of the countless attributes that make up a single individual. We already know what genetic markers to look for when determining whether a baby will be born with Down Syndrome or Tay-Sachs. Scientists promise that greater mapping of the human genome will lead us to the genetic markers of epilepsy, diabetes, and even specific talents.
It is only logical for these scientists to seek to apply that knowledge to the selection of children. While no clear consensus exists on the number of children aborted due to genetic screening, research indicates that as much as 90% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are currently aborted. Genetic selection promises the ability to ensure that an embryo’s very DNA is engineered so that such an abnormality does not exist. No children with Down Syndrome will be aborted or born because no embryo will be created with Down Syndrome.
As Americans, we love the freedom to customize our lives. Chipotle, Five Guys and Cava are popular fast-casual food chains that thrive on the premise of countless customizable options to your meal. A visit to any car dealership now includes a myriad of customizable options. Genetic selection asks the question, “Why is it that, even with IVF, we make babies the way they were made for thousands of years?” After all, we are still uniting one sperm with one egg and waiting to see what genetic markers are created in the brand new DNA. How antiquated. How “anti-choice.”
Rather than chance, genetic selection will provide Americans with the ability to completely customize their child. Choice will finally triumph in the creation of life. A recent article published by Quartz argued that, “By the year 2040, embryo selection could replace sex as the way most of us make babies.” Why take the risk that the child you create could have an abnormality, when you could pay to ensure that all such conditions were erased from its DNA? Furthermore, why even go through the trouble of carrying a baby for nine months if you could grow it in the lab?
Last weekend, Scientists at Cambridge announced that they successfully kept an embryo alive in the laboratory for 14 days. Prior to this discovery, the longest an embryo had survived in the lab was 9 days. Due to ethics laws restricting embryonic experimentation after 14 days (the last day that an embryo could split and become a twin and thus the moment British law considers it an individual) the scientists killed the embryo. The scientists are calling for greater legal flexibility to experiment on embryos. Ultimately, children created and grown in a lab are no longer isolated to science fiction, but are entirely possible in the years to come.
What can easily be overlooked, however, are the philosophical implications of a customized, manufactured child and the effect such practice will have on society.
“It is a fetus until it is born, a person after birth” is one of the most common pro-choice definitions of personhood. What then is a child who is created and nurtured in a lab? At what point does its personhood begin? If personhood truly is tied to birth, than could such a child ever be a person?
While many can sympathize with the desire to isolate genetic markers for diseases, what about customizing children for other attributes? Already, women who fit the prevailing cultural definitions of “beauty,” “intelligence,” and “talent” are being paid more for their donated eggs than those who don’t meet those standards. We may not yet have found the genetic markers for these qualities, but many assume that a beautiful violinist who aced her LSAT has them. Thus, some couples are willing to pay more for her eggs.
Beyond the ethical implications of selecting a child because of its potential to fulfill our image of the “ideal,” there are widespread ramifications for society should this technology become legal.
If the majority of children are born in the lab, what will be the social status of those born through sex? Will insurance companies refuse to cover cancer treatments for children whose parents did not invest in customization? What will economic competition look like between two baby customization companies? Will we be offered “basic” models and then expensive genetic upgrades? “If you want a child who plays the violin and can run like Usain Bolt, that will be an extra $50,000.”
Most importantly, how will these companies treat their creations? If history is any guide, customized embryos or babies will be nothing more to a company than a number on their balance sheet.
Rather than the result of the loving, passionate embrace of a man and woman, or even the union of sperm and egg, such customized children will be genetically engineered products made by man, for the purpose of financial gain or personal gratification.
Some scientists estimate that as much as 80% of our traits are determined by genetics. Ironically, despite two generations of movies and books telling us that each child should be free to buck their parent’s ideals and choose their own destiny, genetic selection promises that no child will ever be able to—we will have written their DNA for them. For the few that are, society will likely marginalize them as genetically impure.
For a picture of such a society, look no further than Michael Bay’s The Island. In the film, science offers the ultra-wealthy the ability to clone themselves for the purposes of organ insurance. Clones are grown in nutrient rich laboratory sacs and then raised to believe that they live in a utopian world. Once a client is in need of a new heart, kidney, lung, etc, the clone is killed and its organs are harvested.
Viewers watch Dr. Bernard Merrick, an executive of the cloning corporation, callously refer to Tom Lincoln and Sarah Jordan, two clones, as, “products.” Lincoln and Jordan spend the last half of the film fighting for their lives as they seek to escape the company’s clutches. Watching the film, there is no doubt as to the personhood, humanity, and dignity of the clones callously sacrificed by Merrick in the name of profit. Reading the stories about the advancements in genetic selection and embryonic testing, it becomes clear that our society will have to grapple with these questions in more than just its movies.
Without a robust understanding of personhood and when it begins, we may all be on our way to the Island.