Designer babies are good, but don’t come with a satisfaction guaranteeSaturday, 11 April, 2009
There’s this story going around concerning designer babies, supposedly trying to show how horrible a future where babies can be designed can be. It goes something like this:
Mr. and Mrs. Jones want a baby. They visit a fertility clinic and announce: “We want a boy—blond hair and blue eyes, please. We want him to be at least six feet tall, good at sports and have great musical ability.”“No sweat,” the doctor says. Nine months later, baby Logan is born.But for Logan’s parents, things don’t work out quite the way they expected. Despite his outstanding physique, Logan has no interest in sports. He likes to write poetry instead. As for music—yes, he’s good at it, his genes have seen to that—but he’d much rather spend his time designing model airplanes.
Logan’s parents are furious. They paid good money for a son who would make them proud on the athletic field and in the concert hall! Plus—the final insult—Logan dyed his blonde hair purple.
There are a number of points to address here.
Most importantly, genetics can’t ensure anything, especially when it comes to personality. Personality, more than anything else, is the result of a complex interplay between genetics and environmental factors. It would be possible to use genetic modification increase the probability of athleticism and musicality in a child, but it can’t be guaranteed.
The story mentioned that Logan’s parents are furious, but it’s worth noting that they are unlikely to be furious at Logan – it’s not his fault – but are likely angry at the doctor for accepting their money and not delivering on his promise. A doctor will of course need to be sure to stress that he can’t ensure anything, because doctors who promise things they can’t deliver are risking lawsuits from frustrated parents. So that part of this story won’t happen, that’s for sure – no doctor will promise this, and only stupid parents would expect their doctor to do so.
What of the parental pressure? Well, parents like Mr. and Mrs. Smith already exist, putting pressure on their children to be top achievers at school, to do well at sports, and try to guide their children into what the parent dreams their child will be. Designer babies won’t be adding anything new here, and may actually be able to help.
To demonstrate this, consider how the story could have been:
Mr. and Mrs. Jones want a baby. They have dreams of having a healthy baby girl, with soft brown hair and big dark eyes. They dream of her growing to be a tall and beautiful woman, going to the best college in the state, being outstandingly musical and perhaps becoming a successful lawyer or physician.But they don’t use any genetic interventions, because those are against the law in all nearby states and countries. They conceive naturally, and nine months later, a baby girl, named Lora is born.Her parents are ecstatic that without needing to choose their child’s gender, they were still gifted with a baby girl. But in other ways, Lora isn’t what her parents expected. She is short, and would much rather play sports, especially basketball, than go to school. Her parents try to encourage her to study, pushing her to try harder, but Lora has difficulty reading and paying attention in class. Lora loves music as much as her parents do, but she is almost tone deaf and she wasn’t selected for the school band.Lora’s parents eventually come to terms with the fact that Lora wasn’t born with the abilities they expected, and Lora accepts that her small stature will prevent her from fulfilling her dreams of being a star on the basketball court and her dyslexia will hold her back in college. Perhaps Lora will find a satisfying life despite this, but it’s likely she and her parents will spend the rest of their life in disappointment.
Amazingly, biotech could actually help here. Mr and Mrs Smith want a daughter who is tall, beautiful, musical and intelligent. Gene modification or selection could increase the chances that Mr and Mrs Smith have a daughter who is everything that her parents’ value. It’s still possible that their daughter won’t share the same interests as her parents. But if she does, she will avoid the same years of struggle and disappointment that Lora had coming to terms with her problems.
The very final point in the original story, where Logan dyes his hair purple, is a very poignant one. Gene interventions don’t actually intrude on the child’s freedom, as they are free to rebel. You can give a child a beautiful head of hair, but they will dye it and cut it a different way. You may give them the genetic basis of creativity in the hope they become a great musician, but they are free to use this creativity to write poetry and design model planes. And, it’s likely that the genetic technologies will exist to permit a child, once they reach the age of maturity, to undo the manipulations their parents had made.
All of us are born with genetic tendancies that shape who we are, and grow to have dreams and aspirations. In most of us, we struggle to find satisfication when we realise our abilities conflict with our desires – our own desires, and the dreams of our parents. The important part is that our parents still love their children, regardless.