Embryo Screening – The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies’.

Photography by Josh Rawlinson.

Nearly 40 years ago, the first ‘test tube baby’ was born. Since then, technological innovation has propelled forward at an unprecedented rate, allowing contemporary science to enable the prospect of ‘designer babies’.

Branded by The Guardian as ‘an ethical horror waiting to happen’, the concept of ‘designer babies’ refers to a future where we can decide, not only the sex of an unborn child, but also physical characteristics such as eye colour and hair colour. Through studying the amount of DNA from specific chromosomes, we are also now able to determine whether an unborn child has any inherited genetic disorders. Whilst this could potentially be beneficial for allowing medical care to be planned before the child is born, and perhaps even diminishing the presence of genetic disorders in society, there are undeniably ethical issues attached to this process.

Contemporary Western philosophy, particularly the branch of existentialism, has always placed a certain value on the sanctity of human life. From Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ to Hegel’s introspective work on self-consciousness, scholars have endlessly questioned what it is to be alive, and whether we should value our lives at all. The ethics of ‘designer babies’ is heavily implicated in this ontological sphere, with the core question asking – do we have the right to choose our children’s characteristics, even if it is health related? Should we enable this arguably progressive technology, or is it morally unsound to interrupt a birth purely for health reasons or characteristic preference?

The primary concern with allowing the practice of DNA screening in an embryo is that it may lead to a ‘slippery slope’. This means that, if enabled, the concept of ‘designer babies’ could soon grow out of hand; with cultural factors perhaps influencing decisions over the child’s sex or characteristics. A fundamental risk here is that certain societies may abuse this power – choosing instead to favour a certain sex or set of aesthetic qualities, essentially creating a genetically modified generation of children. The future is largely uncertain as to whether societies globally could responsibly wield the technology to choose the sex or characteristics of their children. If we truly value life for its organic nature, then perhaps we should preserve the sanctity of DNA. But, if embryonic screening could save lives and preempt certain health conditions, then it is perhaps more of a moral crime not to pursue this groundbreaking technology.

A dystopian image of a ‘designer baby’ future is conjured by Philip Ball, whose piece for The Guardian invites readers to imagine:

“Comfortably seated in the fertility clinic with Vivaldi playing softly in the background, you and your partner are brought coffee and a folder. Inside the folder is an embryo menu. Each embryo has a description, something like this:

Embryo 78 – male
 No serious early onset diseases, but a carrier for phenylketonuria (a metabolic malfunction that can cause behavioural and mental disorders. Carriers just have one copy of the gene, so don’t get the condition themselves).
 Higher than average risk of type 2 diabetes and colon cancer.
 Lower than average risk of asthma and autism.
 Dark eyes, light brown hair, male pattern baldness.
 40% chance of coming in the top half in SAT tests.

There are 200 of these embryos to choose from, all made by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) from you and your partner’s eggs and sperm. So, over to you. Which will you choose?”.

A chilling, or perhaps enticing prospect – we are all invited to consider what the effects of embryonic manipulation would have on social and cultural attitudes, gender power relations, and what it means to have a sense of selfhood.

Mentioned today in Headcandy:

Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil.

Hegel – Phenomenology of Spirit.

Philip Ball, ‘Designer Babies’: theguardian.com/…/designer-babies-ethical-horror-waiting-to-happen

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