A recent development in human genetic engineering has shaken the scientific and medical communities: A newly presented in vitro fertilization (IVF) technique involves the creation of a fertilized human egg with half of its nuclear DNA from one mother, the other half from the father, and the mitochondrial DNA from a second mother. Thus, the produced zygote and eventual fully-grown child would in a very unambiguous sense have three distinct genetic parents. The technique was developed to prevent a form of inheritable late-onset blindness. This development is only the most recent to come out of the burgeoning field of genetic engineering, but the idea of a human with three genetic parents (that is, compared to the two genetic parents of fetuses carried by surrogate mothers) demands a serious conversation about the future legality and ethics of human genetic manipulation.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley foresaw a dystopian near-future in which human genetic engineering produced a rigidly stratified society where one’s life and opportunities were dictated by the genes that each had been endowed with by a centralized politico-medical institution. This satirical and often humorous work was written decades ago, and, since then, whether it was Dolly the cloned sheep or the embryonic stem cell debates of the early 2000s, virtually every press release concerning genetics has brought up talk of a potential Huxleyan dystopia. However, the novelty of recent research is that actual people—real, living human beings who will walk among us someday as colleagues and fellow citizens—will be intrinsically affected by the genetic manipulation conducted on their single-celled selves. The religious right branded human embryonic stem cell research “playing God,” but that work was only ever intended to lead to treatments for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease in grown humans; if that is playing God, then augmenting human genes from the moment of conception is taking the game to a whole new level. Regardless of one’s religious inclinations, here arises a difficult question: If we can edit a human’s genes at the zygotic level to prevent a disease, why not use the same approach to “design” better humans: taller, more attractive—and the granddaddy of them all—smarter?
To be clear, it is almost certain that traits such as physical features and intelligence are not simple genetic switches; there is not a single gene that can be turned on to make someone a future model or genius. Such traits are thought to be the product of the individual’s prenatal and postnatal environments, with only a partial contribution from pure genetics. However, as the understanding of the human genome and gene expression progresses, it seems inevitable that eventually some genes will be pinned down as directly contributing to tall height or high intelligence, just as genetic sources of various predilections to cancer have recently been discovered.
Such developments create a dichotomy with a very fine line of separation. There are two possible ways in which to approach the genetic augmentation of humans: the medical approach and what I deem the preference approach. A medical approach entails using genetic manipulation for the prevention and treatment of “disease,” while the preference approach would use manipulation to intrinsically shape an individual to some ideal preference. Now this dichotomy demands the definition of another term: namely, what is “disease” and what is not? Pinning down an objective definition is difficult, but perhaps a reasonable attempt would be this: A disease is a biological condition or state that limits or eliminates an individual’s ability to live at least a normal life. In this case, one’s quality of normality can be thought of as each person’s closeness to the average of the species. For example, being a few inches below average height is normal (and will not prevent anyone from living a “normal” or better that average life), while genetic dwarfism is a disease because it leads to objective difficulties. Thus, the medical approach to genetic manipulation would see dwarfism, but not merely below-average height, as fair game for prevention or correction; the preference approach, on the other hand, would be willing to prevent below-average height and even give an individual above-average height if the parents so wished (which is a frequent personal preference). Many of such preferences are ultimately cultural; different societies have different definitions of aesthetic physical ideals. But the overwhelming majority of such traits (hair color, skin tone, etc) are just that: aesthetic.
It is from this preference-based approach that a political, ethical, and even philosophical tornado forms. The medical approach, with its goal to address disease, may on occasion make us feel uncomfortable (for example, a person with three genetic parents), but by preventing diseases it will continue to carry out the role of the medical profession: keeping society’s constituents healthy and thus able to lead normal lives.
Some would argue that genetic improvement is indeed unnecessary or unjustifiable for purely aesthetic traits, but would be justifiable if it only focused on traits that actually improve ability or fitness, such as intelligence and physical strength. While the idea of generations of inherently faster, stronger, and smarter humans certainly sounds attractive, the question of applicability must be considered. Intelligently producing genetically “superior” babies, whether done by genetic alteration or simple in vitro selection of the best possible zygotes produced by a couple’s own natural sex cells, will almost certainly be a very expensive procedure, and one that health insurance companies will definitely not cover. The process will be an elective one that individual couples must pay for themselves. There is undoubtedly a great amount of disparity and inequality in our country today, whether regarding educational access or familial wealth, and indeed stark inequality has affected all societies throughout history to some degree. However, since its founding, the promise of America has always been that if you are willing to educate yourself and work hard, you can overcome the circumstances of your birth. This is a noble premise indeed and one that places the impetus to succeed in life squarely upon the individual, but unfortunately genetic engineering of this type would pose a threat to this ethos.
Considering how economic success is nowadays often seen as the most desirable life goal, one’s success in life, especially if intelligence becomes genetically improvable, would be influenced by each person’s parents’ decision to not fully trust in their own gene pool (or the natural probabilistic products of said pool) or their own ability to raise and parent a successful, happy individual. Our increasingly competitive global society has created a culture here in America of “helicopter parents” and “Tiger Moms,” terrified by the idea that their children will not be the best, and so if made available and legal it is a certainty that many would-be parents with the necessary financial means would rush to have their children endowed with a menagerie of desirable traits. If it is provided, they will come.
If left unregulated by laws or statutes, such techniques will be exploited if and when they are made commercially available. A sometimes amusing, but always uncomfortable, reminder of this can be seen in the sperm and egg donation solicitations on elite university campuses: “Superior” genes (or more specifically, genes and traits that the society embraces) are something that some people are willing to pay for, no matter how impersonal the procurement of said genes may be. However, as with ordinarily-conceived offspring, there is still an element of general opportunity; while wealthy individuals can impersonally buy what amounts to sex cells from individuals who suit their preferences, any person regardless of financial means in theory has access to such genetic material through natural, consensual reproduction. Here lies the fundamental difference with genetic engineering that makes it so dangerous and inequitable: It would allow individuals of financial means to circumvent one of the most fundamental equalizers of the human race—genetic randomness. A naturally intelligent and attractive couple is completely capable of conceiving a naturally unintelligent and unattractive child, and barring significantly far-off adult genetic engineering, there is nothing that can be done to change said individual’s genes. The reverse situation is of course also completely true. But embryonic genetic engineering would allow those with one resource—money—to prune their potential offspring to their choosing and thus fool nature. Such a disparity in genetic opportunity would lead to further stratification of our society that would be difficult, if not impossible, to amend–retroactive action is tough once “designer babies” have already entered the population.
Thus, it is necessary for the US government to preempt such a development by instituting clear and firm rules for the human genetics industry. The government should continue to fund and facilitate research in the field because it holds the promise of many therapeutic methods, but the clinical applications of said research must be soundly regulated. The regulations should explicitly outline what the standard of care is with regards to genetic treatment and prevention of “diseases” while also being proactive in making aesthetic and preferential augmentation explicitly banned.
Whether it is drugs or abortion, it is naturally difficult for a government to prohibit anything; black markets and under-the-table operations always spring up to some degree, and one can certainly imagine such clandestine practices being provided to the most demanding or well-connected parents. However, the “they’ll find a way” argument is not sufficient in this case. The difference between genetic enhancement and other services is that the conductors of such practices must always be well-educated and experienced individuals; while a high school dropout can cook meth on the street, it takes a learned scientist or physician to genetically augment any creature, let alone a human. Such people are fewer and easier to track, and they have credibility and reputations to lose. Governmental prohibition and enforcement would thus most likely be effective and prevent widespread non-therapeutic applications of the practice. While there might be an illegal “enhancement” here or there, strict enforcement similar to current legal, medical, and pharmaceutical oversight could prevent the vast majority of abuses. In addition, to prevent the possibility of certain foreign nations becoming genetic enhancement havens, this is legislation that the United States can and should produce in cooperation with fellow developed nations, especially in Europe. This is fundamentally a human problem and one that people of all nationalities need to address sooner rather than later.
With that being said, the typically monumental task of getting America’s opposing political factions to pass bipartisan legislation could actually be easy in this case. Conservatives and libertarians (and their representatives) are by definition skeptical of any new governmental regulations, especially in the troubled wake of Obamacare. However, most self-identified conservatives in the United States are religious and already oppose genetic manipulation under the premise that it is unnatural and, as shown with the debates over embryonic stem cell research, they are fully willing to encode such views in legal regulations. Libertarian-leaning people will be a bit more difficult to convince, but there is an argument that can also be made to liberals that should be effective in overriding their laissez-faire and progressive (genetic, in this case) tendencies, respectively. Namely, such people will be receptive to the argument that human genetic engineering will lead to less equal opportunity and less of an impetus being placed on the will and determination of the individual (not one’s parents, but their own self).
Regardless of whether political action is taken, one thing remains certain: Genetic engineering is coming. It promises us a healthier society, but it could also be used to divide us as human beings in a way never before possible. In truth, the possibility of designer babies is only the symptom of an underlying disease in our culture: a fear of having less-than-superstar children. But while other steps are needed to treat the sickness, this is one symptom we can definitely prevent.