The conversation surrounding eugenics has surprisingly not changed all that much since Gattaca hit movie theaters in 1997. New technologies have brought the idea of “designer babies” out of science fiction and closer into the very near future. But among the public at large, the ethical uncertainty still persists. For some, the dilemma is a question of agency: is it ethical for humans to have god-like control over reproduction? For others, the dilemma is a question of liberty: do unborn children have the right to not have their development interfered with? And for many others, the dilemma encompasses both questions and many more.
Merely examining the developing science that is making designer babies a potential reality often fails to sway people one way or the other in the ongoing ethics debate. The language is simply not that accessible to the many uninformed. But since this is an issue that could one day affect all prospective parents, scientists, philosophers, writers and others, we ought to begin making this debate more accessible to the masses. Some already have through film and fiction. (See: the Divergent series, Shutter Island, season 2 of The Knick.) But as far as non-fiction is concerned, who are the major voices in the designer babies debate today?
Last year Adam Cohen published Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. While this book is more history than argument, it details the beginning of forced sterilization in the United States. Cohen lets the history speak for itself: he doesn’t need to present an argument because the portrait he paints of Carrie Buck, the woman whose forced sterilization led to its legalization, is so assuredly dark.
But when most people speak of designer babies today—or the kind of eugenics as presented by Gattaca—forced sterilization is not part of the conversation. After the Second World War, the idea of allowing only “desirables” to reproduce largely went out of vogue.
A 2015 book, GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies, examines what is going on in the contemporary designer babies debate. Paul Knoepfler’s book explains how the marriage of in vitro fertilization and new genome tinkering tools has made it possible for humans to play God. Knoepfler also addresses many of the social implications of this newfound power. The pursuit of designer babies may not produce the desired results at first. Until we master the tools and the process, there will be experimental failures that could do more harm than help. He discusses the two major camps of the advocates for genetic modification: those who only want to prevent disease and frailty and the transhumanists who believe in creating “better” humans.
Henry Greely argues in The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction that—whether anyone likes it or not—sex for reproduction’s sake will soon come to an end. By the end of the century, preimplantation genetic diagnosis and in vitro fertilization will be so cheap that anyone who conceived a child naturally would be a fool.
None of the aforementioned authors are household names. Scholars and scientists who study this sort of thing rarely ever are. The three books mentioned above are not definitive answers on the future of reproduction. What is prescient and what is not will only be decided in retrospect. But they serve to illustrate the point that there are intelligent thinkers addressing the questions we are having trouble answering. What is for certain is that the technology behind designer babies will only continue to get better. It’s time for our legislators to start reading the kinds of materials mentioned above. History shows that the results of uninformed law are always disastrous. And since designer babies and eugenics raise the most difficult of existential concerns, we simply don’t have an option to learn too late from our mistakes.