The idea of the designer baby used to be an idea that belonged squarely in the field of science fiction. Choosing characteristics of offspring from gender to appearance was something out of Star Trek. It seems unnatural for parents to just pick and choose characteristics that they find desirable in their children, as if they were at a car dealership choosing a new sedan. In present time, what was once considered a crazy proposition is now getting closer and closer to an uncommon occurrence. Still in the relatively early stages of scientific experimentation and perfection of technology, geneticists are only a few years away from perfecting the process of made-to-order children. Among the aspects that can be genetically modified are looks, personality, and even a child's IQ. This process, known more formally as genetic modification, can alter almost anything about a person; including gender, the removal of any potential genetic disease markers, and many other things. The science of genetic modification is interesting but does not take into account the question of ethics with regard to the topic at hand. It is important to understand the history of the process of genetic modification and how it works before making a decision about whether or not creating children in this way is ethical or not.
Since the first scientific experiments regarding genetic engineering and scientific intervention and assistance in the making of children, the debate has raged over the morality of these "unnatural" interferences. Even early geneticists worried about the potential results of eugenics research (Carlson). The most common form of human genetic engineering used in the modern era is in vitro fertilization. This process takes a sperm and egg from a mother and father and fertilizes the egg inside a test tube. The embryo is then inserted into a womb, either that of the biological mother or through a surrogate. The first child born through IVF was Louise Brown in 1978. Her birth was world news and began the debate about whether or not Brown was a natural child. Since she was created by science, some argue whether Louis Brown should she be counted a real human being at all.
From creating in vitro fertilization, which allowed formerly sterile parents to have biological children, genetic engineers have continued their research to the newer technologies that create "designer babies." For people who had attempted IVF without success, a new hope emerged through the efforts of embryologist Jacques Cohen (Brownlee 2002). The first child conceived through this process, known as cytoplasmic transfer, was born in 1997. Four years later, once it was proved that the child was developing normally, Cohen and his colleagues announced that the several children born through cytoplasmic transfer actually had three genetic parents: mother, father, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which was infused into their embryonic forms. The scientists had, in fact, enhanced the children genetically though the addition of this third genetic factor. These children would, in turn, pass on their own genes including this addition of mitochondrial DNA to their own kids.
The question of human creation has been a topic for long periods of debate among philosophers, physicians, religious scholars, and scientists since well before the beginning of recorded history. Today these debates still continue without any real conclusions being made up to this point. Pro-life and Pro-choice activists constantly argue violently over the question of life. Specifically, at what point does a matter of cells become a true human being and, more importantly, when do the rules and laws that apply to a full-term human being apply to those cells. People continue to argue over what defines the act of living with regard to humans who are on life support machinery like the case of Terry Schivo. Humans argue about when people have the right to die and by whose hand, what they have the right to choose with regard to their lives and the way they live them, and who gets to make those decisions about life if not the person him or herself. The question of human genetic engineering falls clearly in among these topics of debate.
Those who support the process of genetic modification argue that the process's benefits far outweigh any negative possibilities. One group of proponents refers to themselves as Transhumanists (Bostrom 2007). They support genetic modification because of one of the potential side effects of the process. Engineering out genetic diseases and building in genetic markers to improve looks, athletic abilities, and intelligence will lead to a group of individuals having a marked advantage over individuals who have not been genetically engineered. In turn, the offspring of these humans will have the same genetic positives as their parents (Bostrom 2007). This can potentially lead to an evolutionary change wherein all the genetic diseases can eventually be erased and humanity on the whole will become healthier in the long run.
If morality is decided by the opinion of the majority, then genetic engineering is not morally wrong. A recent U.S. Survey suggests that most citizens approve of eugenics when it comes to improving the health of babies and children, as well as the elimination or treatment of genetic diseases (Kauffman 2009). One such case of genetic modification utilized to cure an illness is the conception and birth of Adam Nash. Little Adam Nash was born to Lisa and Jack Nash in 2000. The Nashes had a six-year-old daughter named Molly who was born with a genetic bone marrow disease. Molly needed a bone marrow transplant with an exact genetic match if she had any hope of surviving. In response to the crisis, the Nashes decided to have another child who could serve as a donor for Molly. To ensure that the child was health, the Nashes had their embryos subjected to scientific engineering to ensure that the new child would not have the disease markers. This was a necessary procedure because both parents were carriers of the disease and most of the potential embryos tested positive. They also ensured that the embryo chosen would be a direct genetic match for Molly. Using blood from the umbilical cord and the infant's bone marrow, doctors were able to save Molly's life (Brownlee 2002). The Nashes now have two healthy children instead of one little girl dying of a serious and often fatal disease.
Opponents of genetic modification would look at the Nash case and come up with an opinion opposite to the way that proponents view the story. Bioethicist Alexander Capron (2006) wrote that "the wanted child becomes the made-to-order child" (Agar). Molly Nash was not genetically engineered and she was born with severe health problems. Her brother Adam was created with the removal of genetic imperfection. Consequently, mom and dad do not have the negative memories with young Adam that they do with Molly. Throughout their lives, Molly will live with the knowledge that she could not have lived were it not for her more perfect brother. He lives with the knowledge that his perfection saved his sister's life, that he was created as the ideal child for his parents. Even if the Nashes do not consciously treat their children differently, there will always be this underlying aspect to their relationship with their children.
Another point of disagreement between the two sides is the question of the genetic supermen discussed earlier. Opponents fear that genetic modification has the potential to create a breed of supermen amongst the regular Earth population. Annas (2002) stated that "The new speices, or 'posthuman,' will likely view the old 'normal' humans as inferior, even savages and fit for slavery or slaughter. The normals, on the other hand, may see the posthumans as a threat and if they can, may engage in a preemptive strike." Instead of creating evolution which would benefit all, opponents believe that those who have been genetically engineered will be considered the privileged members of society and look down upon those people created through traditional biology. Consequently a system will develop wherein those who were "designer babies" will be considered a better example of the human species than those whose characteristics were not selected through artificial means. As opponent Frances Fukuyama put it, a race of super humans will be bred who will look down on people who are not genetically engineered, a phenomenon that he has dubbed 'posthuman' (Agar 2006).
The concern is that those conceived and born without the aid of genetic engineering will become lesser beings than those "improved" through science. Biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin (1999) stated that, "It's the ultimate shopping experience: designing your baby…In a society used to cosmetic surgery and psychopharmacology, this is not a big step" (Lemonick 1999). This worry cannot be immediately dismissed. Advertisements on television and in magazine showcase that the latest technologies are the ones that every citizen is encouraged to desire and to purchase. A cellular phone which was the best on the market a year ago is now obsolete as technology improves. Indeed land lines are becoming outdated and…