By Richard Hayes
Tuesday, April 15, 2008 1:47 PM
In an essay in Sunday's Outlook section, Dartmouth ethics professor Ronald Green asks us to consider a neo-eugenic future of "designer babies," with parents assembling their children quite literally from genes selected from a catalogue. Distancing himself from the compulsory, state-sponsored eugenics that darkened the first half of the last century, Green instead celebrates the advent of a libertarian, consumer-driven eugenics motivated by the free play of human desire, technology and markets. He argues that this vision of the human future is desirable and very likely inevitable.
To put it mildly: I disagree. Granted, new human genetic technologies have real potential to help prevent or cure many terrible diseases, and I support research directed towards that end. But these same technologies also have the potential for real harm. If misapplied, they would exacerbate existing inequalities and reinforce existing modes of discrimination. If more widely abused, they could undermine the foundations of civil and human rights. In the worst case, they could undermine our experience of being part of a single human community with a common human future.
Once we begin genetically modifying our children, where do we stop? If it's acceptable to modify one gene, why not two, or 20 or 200? At what point do children become artifacts designed to someone's specifications rather than members of a family to be nurtured?
Given what we know about human nature, the development and commercial marketing of human genetic modification would likely spark a techno-eugenic rat-race. Even parents opposed to manipulating their children's genes would feel compelled to participate in this race, lest their offspring be left behind.
Green proposes that eugenic technologies could be used to reduce "the class divide." But nowhere in his essay does he suggest how such a proposal might ever be made practicable in the real world.
The danger of genetic misuse is equally threatening at the international level. What happens when some rogue country announces an ambitious program to "improve the genetic stock" of its citizens? In a world still barely able to contain the forces of nationalism, ethnocentrism and militarism, the last thing we need to worry about is a high-tech eugenic arms race.
In his essay, Green doesn't distinguish clearly between different uses of genetic technology -- and the distinctions are critical. It's one thing to enable a couple to avoid passing on a devastating genetic condition, such as Tay-Sachs. But it's a different thing altogether to create children with a host of "enhanced" athletic, cosmetic and cognitive traits that could be passed to their own children, who in turn could further genetically modify their children, who in turn... you get the picture. It's this second use of gene technology (the technical term is "heritable genetic enhancement") that Green most fervently wants us to embrace.
In this position, Green is well outside the growing national and international consensus on the proper use of human genetic science and technology. To his credit, he acknowledges that 80 percent of the medical school students he surveyed said they were against such forms of human genetic engineering, and that public opinion polls show equally dramatic opposition. He could have noted, as well, that nearly 40 countries -- including Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, and South Africa -- have adopted socially responsible policies regulating the new human genetic technologies. They allow genetic research (including stem cell research) for medical applications, but prohibit its use for heritable genetic modification and reproductive human cloning.
In the face of this consensus, Green blithely announces his confidence that humanity "can and will" incorporate heritable genetic enhancement into the "ongoing human adventure."
Well, it's certainly possible. Our desires for good looks, good brains, wealth and long lives, for ourselves and for our children, are strong and enduring. If the gene-tech entrepreneurs are able to convince us that we can satisfy these desires by buying into genetic modification, perhaps we'll bite. Green certainly seems eager to encourage us to do so.
But he would be wise to listen to what medical students, the great majority of Americans and the international community appear to be saying: We want all these things, yes, and genetic technology might help us attain them, but we don't want to run the huge risks to the human community and the human future that would come with altering the genetic basis of our common human nature.
Richard Hayes is executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society.