Genetic modification, essentially meaning the deliberate engineering of a cell in order to alter its characteristics, is being increasingly exercised as our tech society hurtles towards an ‘ideal’ existence. From lowering the risk of developing diseases, to selecting the sex and aesthetic qualities of an embryo, genetic engineering has pioneered a path towards enhancing the quality of human life. Yet, amongst the plethora of possibility, where should we draw the line with genetic manipulation? How far is too far? When the eye and hair colour of an unborn child can be chosen by its parents?
The fundamental point is that, although genetic engineering opens possibilities of idealisation and apparent improvement, it threatens to bring the very concept of personhood under threat. This is because, when a scientist modifies and interferes with the natural occurrence of a cell, its theoretical autonomy is compromised — the cell’s original course of existence is diverted by an unassigned authority. As ethically problematic as this situation is, it is debatable where and when a person becomes autonomous, and if an unborn child holds any technical human rights. Going down the Descartes route of cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’, selfhood arguably originates from the moment an organism can independently think and respond to their environment. This then implies that the genetic modification of an embryo, through clinical procedures such as IVF, doesn’t infringe on the sanctity of selfhood if there is no active cognition from the organism. This line of thought has been coined by bioethicists as prenatal autonomy — meaning the right of parents to determine the conditions of existence for their child.
Alongside the ethical concerns of selfhood in genetic modification, the clinical process is also subject to economic and ideological inequalities. Harvard University’s George Annas, chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights, expresses the implication of designer babies as commodities that should be open to the forces of market regulation. This is due to the fact that, when a characteristic of an embryo is deliberately selected, it removes the natural process of selection; instead creating an artificial product that has been altered for the purpose of enjoyment. In this sense, the genetic modification of a human embryo and creation of a ‘designer baby’ essentially replaces organic selfhood with artificial commodification. In the western world, where the vast majority of civilisation exists under the thrall of capitalist consumer culture, it hardly seems surprising that we now look towards idealising ourselves both throughout our lives, and before they even begin in the womb. Exacerbating this, the factor of cost when choosing to genetically modify a human embryo causes further complications, as class and wealth inequality would promote genetic enhancement for only the rich — another step down the slippery slope of elitism.*
Complimenting this concept of genetic engineering as economically influenced, it is also potentially problematic due to the capacity of society to come under ideological sway. By this, I mean that environmental factors inevitably shape the choices we make on a daily basis. If a set of parents choose to determine the gender of their child, or the eye colour of their child, there will be an underlying motive for this choice. Whether the choice they make is supposedly personal, or whether it is to fit a certain societal trend (for example, choosing to have a girl assuming she will fulfil a feminine stereotype), genetic modification will always threaten to subscribe to an ideological doctrine.
The advancement of technology to alter human life before it even begins is a daunting prospect to consider, especially if ever used for the wrong reasons. Whilst the concept of selfhood appears intangible and subjective, it is essential to consider the conditions that govern our existence, and whether our own autonomy is ever truly legitimate.
Mentioned today in HEADCANDY:
Sarah Ly – “Ethics of Designer Babies”
George Annas – Various works; such as “American Bioethics: Crossing Human Rights and Health Law Boundaries”
*Interestingly, Sophie has unknowingly tapped into the plot of recent science-fiction novel ‘By Light Alone’ (by Adam Roberts). If anyone fancies something on this theme that’s a bit more fun than a thesis, you can find it here.