Have you seen the movie Gattaca? It’s a movie from 1997 based around the idea that in the future genetic manipulation and DNA selection have become the norm. Designer babies are not a novelty, they are accepted and expected. Those who are not fortunate enough to have been born with superior genes chosen by their payments are relegated to the dregs of society. Babies can essentially built to have superior physical and mental abilities when compared to average human beings.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal chronicles how the science fiction of Gattaca is rapidly becoming a reality in the world. Here are a few excerpts from the article which was penned by Gautam Naik.
PGD is starting to be used to target less-serious disorders or certain characteristics — such as a baby’s gender — that aren’t medical conditions. The next controversial step is to select physical traits for cosmetic reasons.
“If we’re going to produce children who are claimed to be superior because of their particular genes, we risk introducing new sources of discrimination” in society, says Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit public interest group in Oakland, Calif. If people use the method to select babies who are more likely to be tall, the thinking goes, then people could effectively be enacting their biases against short people.
In a recent U.S. survey of 999 people who sought genetic counseling, a majority said they supported prenatal genetic tests for the elimination of certain serious diseases. The survey found that 56% supported using them to counter blindness and 75% for mental retardation.
More provocatively, about 10% of respondents said they would want genetic testing for athletic ability, while another 10% voted for improved height. Nearly 13% backed the approach to select for superior intelligence, according to the survey conducted by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine.
For trait selection, a big hurdle is getting enough useful DNA material from the embryo. In a typical PGD procedure, a single cell is removed from a six-cell embryo and tested for the relevant genes or SNPs. It’s relatively easy to check and eliminate diseases such as cystic fibrosis that are linked to a single malfunctioning gene. But to read the larger number of SNP markers associated with complex ailments such as diabetes, or traits like hair color, there often isn’t enough high-quality genetic material.
William Kearns, a medical geneticist and director of the Shady Grove Center for Preimplantation Genetics in Rockville, Md., says he has made headway in cracking the problem. In a presentation made at a November meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Philadelphia, he described how he had managed to amplify the DNA available from a single embryonic cell to identify complex diseases and also certain physical traits.
Of 42 embryos tested, Dr. Kearns said he had enough data to identify SNPs that relate to northern European skin, hair and eye pigmentation in 80% of the samples. (A patent for Dr. Kearn’s technique is pending; the test data are unpublished and have yet to be reviewed by other scientists.)
Dr. Kearns’ talk attracted the attention of Dr. Steinberg, the head of Fertility Institutes, which already offers PGD for gender selection. The clinic had hoped to collaborate with Dr. Kearns to offer trait selection as well. In December, the clinic’s Web site announced that couples who signed up for embryo screening would soon be able to make “a pre-selected choice of gender, eye color, hair color and complexion, along with screening for potentially lethal diseases.”
Perhaps I am just naive and uneducated, but this simply sounds like a neater, cleaner, and more scientific form of the popular early 20th century eugenics movement. Do you remember what the Nazis did? They attempted, through eugenics, to create a super race. The implications of “designer babies” are terrifying to me. As the technology advances, who is to say that all but the most perfect of babies would ever be born? I was born with two small holes in my neck. They are still there and are little more than minor aesthetic imperfections. My brother was born pigeon toed. My sister-in-law has hearing loss. What if someone could have “screened” for those “imperfections” and either weeded them out or discarded the embryos completely?
When humans try to play God and attempt to change and control something like a human life, disaster always ensues. We have already seen the cataclysmic disaster that resulted from the eugenics movement: genocide. The designer baby movement will lead to similar genocide, except this one will be against those who have no voice. There will be no death camps to discover because the deaths will happen in a laboratory at the hands of a doctor in a petrie dish. Going down this road will dramatically alter the landscape of our culture, and not in a positive way.