Article

The problem with choosing our children’s genetics

Nov 23, 2018

A recent essay in MIT’s magazine, Technology Review, tells the story of a family who were offered pre-implantation genetic testing in order to avoid having a child with a particular genetic disease. The article, “Designer Babies Aren’t Futuristic. They’re Already Here,” rehearses some of the reasons why couples might want to choose their children’s genetics, some of the financial barriers to doing so, and the public’s queasiness over so-called designer babies.

What the author fails to point out, though, are the human costs of designing our children.

At least for now, the standard way of trying to ensure that a child is born without a particular genetic anomaly like Tay-Sachs or, in this case DYT1 dystonia, is by using in vitro fertilization (IVF) followed by genetic testing of the resulting embryos. Ova are retrieved from a woman, sperm donated by a man, and fertilization takes place in a petri dish.

Once fertilization occurs, embryos—living human beings—are are tested to see which ones carry the genetic marker for the future disease. As the essay accurately puts it, “Using a technology called pre-implantation genetic testing, they could pick the embryos that had no inherited the DYT1 mutation.” The author then moves on to talk about the financial costs, which are not insignificant.

The human costs

Even more significant are the human costs. The author doesn’t say what happens to the living human embryos who do have the DYT1 mutation. In most cases, they would be given a death sentence. Those embryos would not be transferred to the woman’s uterus, even though they are her and her partner’s children just as much as the non-DYT1 children are. The DYT1-positive embryos are then discarded.

To use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis as a tool for deciding which living human embryos live and which living human embryos die is eugenics pure and simple.

Not only does the fate of the children make pre-implantation genetic diagnosis worrisome, so does the eugenic nature of doing it. In this case, the parents are favoring one kind of child over another. I’m not suggesting that their intention is malicious or that they are setting about to harm the embryos, but that is the result.

Eugenics was a failed social experiment in the United States and England that led to the state sponsored atrocities in Nazi Germany under Hitler. After World War II, to label someone a eugenicist was to shame them for their disregard for the dignity of every human being, especially those with Jewish genes.

In the aftermath of the war, member nations issued the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), calling on the world in Article 1, to affirm that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

These are some of the reasons people feel so uneasy about designer children. To use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis as a tool for deciding which living human embryos live and which living human embryos die is eugenics pure and simple. Yet what was once repudiated by the world, is somehow becoming noble.

No one would fault the parents for wanting a child free of a genetically-linked disability. But the problem is that the means are not justified by the end: One must never employ bad means (killing and eugenics) to achieve a good end.

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C. Ben Mitchell

Ben Mitchell is the Graves Chair of moral philosophy at Union University. He is also editor of Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics and serves as a Research Fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC. Prior... Read More