The case against designer babies

Manipulating the evolutionary function of childbirth raises the spectre of genetic engineering

By Shelley Fralic, Vancouver Sun September 23, 2011 We drive instead of walk. We prefer fast food over slow cook. We LOL on Facebook instead of laughing out loud, face to face. We dump instead of recycle. We learn online instead of in classrooms. We opt for disposable over cloth. We do all these things, and many more, because life is about choices and the millions we make over a lifetime determine not only the quality of our life, but often the lives of those around us. And with the help of the modern-day aids and abettors that are invention and technology, we are choosing more and more often to make the easy, expedient, and sometimes selfish, choices. It's human nature to take the road less bothersome, of course, to make things less onerous on our time and psyche than they might otherwise be, or were for previous generations. And so it is with having babies. It wasn't that long ago that you got pregnant, hoped for an uneventful gestation and, on the big day, accepted what you got: boy, girl, big, small, healthy, frail. And you did your best to be a good parent, whether your child was smart or slow, whether she had 10 fingers or was born with a handicap. That baby story, of course, has long been thrown out with the bathwater, as the burgeoning business of infant tailoring has introduced such game-changers as chemical contraception, in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, gender selection, amniocentesis, sperm donation, embryo freezing, fertility clinics, ultrasound sex identification and assorted other pre-natal interferences have brought us dangerously close to not only the unthinkable but the unconscionable: the designer baby. Or, as the reproductive biology experts are calling it: assisted procreation. You might think that sounds benign and fuzzy, evoking a corps of roving health care workers whose job it is to aid and educate would-be parents who are having trouble conceiving, or women who suffer multiple miscarriages. But it's more sinister than that. It's about testing every chromosome in a human embryo to detect abnormalities such as Down syndrome and other genetic mutations and risk factors and, presumably, provide the ammunition for termination, the wrong-headed theory being that a Down syndrome child is somehow less worthy of life, somehow tarnished and thus a social burden to be eradicated. It's about being able to screen embryos before in-vitro implantation and, because most adult diseases have fetal origins, being able to select embryos that don't exhibit risk factors for heart disease or Alzheimer's, and thus are the embryos most likely to develop into a healthy baby. It means, as science continues its genome mapping, being able to identify embryonic traits such as musical abilities or math skills, and maybe even eye colour. Sound far-fetched? Consider that such work is already underway and that one of its practitioners, Dr. Santiago Munne, who founded a New Jersey-based company called Reprogenetics, is reportedly considering opening embryonic screening labs in Montreal and Toronto. What is largely unspoken in all this breathless news, in the rush to create the perfect child, is that despite our efforts to make it less so, life is a crapshoot and there are simply some choices we shouldn't be allowed to manipulate with impunity, some natural phenomena best left to Mother Nature. By opting for supreme control over the evolutionary function of childbirth, we risk a kind of self-absorbed Stepford Wives homogeny that is science-fiction scary, that smacks of genetic engineering, and at a base level will surely create a world not only lacking the wonder of surprise but also lacking that which makes us human: pathos, patience, sorrow. If we didn't have imperfection and disappointment, if we were in total control of everything, how would we handle hardship or deal with grief or recover from tragedy, how would we learn to collectively care about those who aren't as fortunate as we are? It's one thing to look to modern science for a helping hand when the baby gods are not smiling down on us. But it's another, altogether, to employ genetic engineering because we prefer blond over brunette. Just because we can play God doesn't mean we should.  

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