Science & Technology

To Enhance or Not To Enhance

When is it moral to genetically engineer your offspring?


What genetic enhancements should parents be allowed to make in their offspring when those biotech innovations become available and relatively safe? You might think it's far too early to worry about such questions. However, opponents of new biotech research such as Francis Fukuyama disagree.

"We may be about to enter into a posthuman future, in which technology will give us the capacity gradually to alter [human] essence over time," worries Fukuyama in his new book Our Posthuman Future. Champions of the biotech future are with Fukuyama on this point: "We are on the cusp of profound biological change, poised to transcend our current form and character on a journey to destinations of new imagination," declares Gregory Stock in his new book, Redesigning Humans.

Let's assume that cheap, reliable genetic interventions will be available to parents in the next couple of decades. One such technology might involve inserting artificial chromosomes carrying genes selected by parents into an embryo at the one-cell stage. Once the artificial chromosomes have been incorporated into the embryo's genome, the selected genes would spread normally so that they would be in every cell of the enhanced child's body when he or she is born. Assuming something like artificial chromosomes will work, what limits, if any, should be put on parents' choices?

Opponents object that genetic enhancement technologies will not be safe, at least initially. Of course any enhancement technologies will have to be thoroughly tested in animals before they can be used to help people. Fortunately, our quickly advancing understanding of the complex web of interactions between genes and other cellular activities is likely to dramatically reduce the risks that might accompany inserting beneficial genes. As a general rule, no attempts at genetic enhancement should be attempted until solid research indicates that the risk of birth defects using genetic enhancement technologies is at least no greater than the risks of birth defects in children who are produced in the conventional way.

Skeptics about biotech also protest that genetically enhancing embryos will necessarily have to be done without their permission, thus violating moral prohibitions against experimenting on human beings without their consent. Keep in mind that none of us gave our consent to be born, much less to be born with the specific complement of genes that we bear. Nevertheless, there is a way to address the opponents' concern over consenting to genetic enhancement: Would a reasonable person consent to having particular genetic traits or not?

Applying this standard would rule out allowing parents to select genes that would unquestionably harm their children. For example, no reasonable person would want to suffer from sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. This standard would also rule out the recently reported quest by two deaf partners to have a congenitally deaf child. When that deaf couple approached a sperm bank seeking sperm from a deaf donor, the sperm bank rightly turned them away, explaining that congenital deafness is exactly the type of condition that rules out would-be donors. It is simply immoral to decide in advance to limit a child's potential. We already forbid such activities; we call them child abuse and punish those who harm children (or anybody else) on purpose.

So what type of genetic enhancements would be morally acceptable? Again, applying a reasonable-person standard, consent can be presumed for general capacities that anyone would want, e.g., genes that tend to increase intelligence, strengthen immune systems, and lengthen lives. After all, these are capacities that many other people already have naturally, so it's hard to see a moral reason for denying them to others who will be able to obtain them safely by means of genetic engineering.

Opponents of genetic enhancement try to frighten the public by trivializing the choices that parents might make. They suggest that some parents will want to genetically engineer piano prodigies or professional basketball players. Others insinuate Nazi eugenics by hinting that some parents will choose to endow their children with blond hair and blue eyes. Some have even suggested that black parents might choose to genetically engineer their children so that they will have white skin in order for them to avoid the pain of racism.

It is doubtful that many parents will make such trivial choices if implementing them would pose even the slightest risk to the health of their children. Choosing to engineer in genes that improve a child's health may be worth some small risk, but trying to insert genes for red hair would likely not be. However, in order to avoid rare cases of parental misconduct, it may be necessary to limit by law the choice of genetic interventions to the types of general capacities described above.

What about the far future? Someday might not parents choose to give their children gills or wings or some such other outlandish genetic combination? Even if such scenarios would be possible, they are unlikely. After all, human beings didn't sprout wings in order to fly, nor grow gills in order to swim underwater. Instead of modifying our genes, humanity will develop new technologies that will enable us to go where we want to go and do what we want to do.

Finally, applying a reasonable-person standard to genetic enhancements should allay the more lurid fears of biotech opponents and help citizens and policy makers as they craft institutions to guide the safe development of human genetic engineering.