Arguing For and Against Genetic Engineering

by Chris Seck on June 8, 2007

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel recently spoke at Stanford on the subject of his new book, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. He focused on the “ethical problems of using biomedical technologies to determine and choose from the genetic material of human embryos,” an issue that has inspired much debate.

Having followed Sandel’s writings on genetic enhancement for several years, I think that this issue deserves special thought. For many years, the specter of human genetic engineering has haunted conservatives and liberals alike. Generally, their main criticisms run thus:

First, genetic engineering limits children’s autonomy to shape their own destinies. Writer Dinesh D’Souza articulates this position in a 2001 National Review Online article: “If parents are able to remake a child’s genetic makeup, they are in a sense writing the genetic instructions that shape his entire life. If my parents give me blue eyes instead of brown eyes, if they make me tall instead of medium height, if they choose a passive over an aggressive personality, their choices will have a direct, lifelong effect on me.” In other words, genetic enhancement is immoral because it artificially molds people’s lives, often pointing their destinies in directions that they themselves would not freely choose. Therefore, it represents a fundamental violation of their rights as human beings.

Second, some fear that genetic engineering will lead to eugenics. In a 2006 column, writer Charles Colson laments: “British medical researchers recently announced plans to use cutting-edge science to eliminate a condition my family is familiar with: autism. Actually, they are not ‘curing’ autism or even making life better for autistic people. Their plan is to eliminate autism by eliminating autistic people. There is no in utero test for autism as there is for Down syndrome…[Prenatal] testing, combined with abortion-on-demand, has made people with Down syndrome an endangered population…This utilitarian view of life inevitably leads us exactly where the Nazis were creating a master race. Can’t we see it?” The logic behind this argument is that human genetic enhancement perpetuates discrimination against the disabled and the “genetically unfit,” and that this sort of discrimination is similar to the sort that inspired the eugenics of the Third Reich.

A third argument is that genetic engineering will lead to vast social inequalities. This idea is expressed in the 1997 cult film Gattaca, which portrays a society where the rich enjoy genetic enhancements—perfect eyesight, improved height, higher intelligence—that the poor cannot afford. Therefore, the main character Vincent, a man from a poor background who aspires to be an astronaut, finds it difficult to achieve his goal because he is short-sighted and has a “weak heart.” This discrepancy is exacerbated by the fact that his brother, who is genetically-engineered, enjoys perfect health and is better able to achieve his dreams. To many, Gattaca is a dystopia where vast gaps between the haves and have-nots will become intolerable, due to the existence of not just material, but also genetic inequalities.

The critics are right that a world with genetic engineering will contain inequalities. On the other hand, it is arguable that a world without genetic engineering, like this one, is even more unequal. In Gattaca, a genetically “fit” majority of people can aspire to be astronauts, but an unfortunate “unfit” minority cannot. In the real world, the situation is the other way round: the majority of people don’t have the genes to become astronauts, and only a small minority with perfect eyesight and perfect physical fitness—the Neil Armstrong types—would qualify.

The only difference is that in the real world, we try to be polite about the unpleasant realities of life by insisting that the Average Joe has, at least theoretically, a Rocky-esque chance of becoming an astronaut. In that sense, our covert discrimination is much more polite than the overt discrimination of the Gattaca variety. But it seems that our world, where genetic privilege exists naturally among a tiny minority, could conceivably be less equal (and less socially mobile) than a world with genetic engineering, where genetic enhancements would be potentially available to the majority of people, giving them a chance to create better futures for themselves. Supporters of human genetic engineering thus ask the fair question: Are natural genetic inequalities, doled out randomly and sometimes unfairly by nature, more just than engineered ones, which might be earned through good old fashioned American values like hard work, determination, and effort?

“But,” the critics ask, “wouldn’t genetic engineering lead us to eugenics?” The pro-genetic engineering crowd thinks not. They suggest that genetic engineering, if done on a purely decentralized basis by free individuals and couples, will not involve any form of coercion. Unlike the Nazi eugenics program of the 1930s, which involved the forced, widespread killing of “unfit” peoples and disabled babies, the de facto effect of genetic engineering is to cure disabilities, not kill the disabled. This is a key moral difference. As pointed out by biologist Robert Sinsheimer, genetic engineering would “permit in principle the conversion of all the ‘unfit’ to the highest genetic level.” Too often, women choose to abort babies because pre-natal testing shows that they have Down syndrome or some other ailment. If anything, genetic engineering should be welcomed by pro-life groups because by converting otherwise-disabled babies into normal, healthy ones, it would reduce the number of abortions.

In addition, the world of Gattaca, for all its faults, features a world that, far from being defined along Hitler-esque racial lines, has in fact transcended racism. Being blond-haired and blue-eyed loses its racially elitist undertones because such traits are easily available on the genetic supermarket. Hair color, skin color, and eye color become a subjective matter of choice, no more significant than the color of one’s clothes. If anything, genetic engineering will probably encourage, not discourage, racial harmony and diversity.

It is true that genetic engineering may limit children’s autonomy to shape their own destinies. But it is equally true that all people’s destinies are already limited by their natural genetic makeup, a makeup that they are born with and cannot change. A short person, for example, would be unlikely to join the basketball team because his height makes it difficult for him to compete with his tall peers. An ugly person would be unable to achieve her dream of becoming a famous actress because the lead roles are reserved for the beautiful. A myopic kid who wears glasses will find it difficult to become a pilot. A student with an IQ of 75 will be unlikely to get into Harvard however hard he tries. In some way or another, our destinies are limited by the genes we are born with.

In this sense, it is arguable that genetic engineering might help to level the playing field. Genetic engineering could give people greater innate capacity to fulfill their dreams and pursue their own happiness. Rather than allow peoples’ choices to be limited by their genetic makeup, why not give each person the capability of becoming whatever he or she wants to, and let his or her eventual success be determined by effort, willpower, and perseverance? America has long represented the idea that people can shape their own destinies. To paraphrase Dr. King, why not have a society where people are judged not by the genes they inherit, but by the content of their character?

Looking at both sides, the genetic engineering controversy does raise questions that should be answered, not shouted down. Like all major scientific advances, it probably has some negative effects, and steps must be taken to ameliorate these outcomes. For example, measures should also be taken to ensure that genetic engineering’s benefits are, at least to some extent, available to the poor. As ethicists Maxwell Mehlman and Jeffrey Botkin suggest in their book Access to the Genome: The Challenge to Equality, the rich could be taxed on genetic enhancements, and the revenue from these taxes could be used to help pay for the genetic enhancement of the poor. To some extent, this will help to ameliorate the unequal effects of genetic engineering, allowing its benefits to be more equitably distributed. In addition, caution must be taken in other areas, such as ensuring that the sanctity of human life is respected at all times. In this respect, pro-life groups like Focus on the Family can take a leading role in ensuring that scientific advances do not come at the expense of moral ethics.

At the same time, we should not allow our fear of change to prevent our society from exploring this promising new field of science, one that promises so many medical and social benefits. A strategy that defines itself against the core idea of scientific progress cannot succeed. Instead of attempting to bury our heads in the sand, we should seek to harness genetic engineering for its positive benefits, even as we take careful steps to ameliorate its potential downsides.

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