Science & Technology

Human Rights and Human Enhancement

Is genetic modification of people moral?


Palo Alto, CA—Do people have a fundamental right to genetically and biotechnologically enhance their bodies and brains? That question was central to the "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights" (HETHR) Conference held over the Memorial Day weekend at Stanford University's Law School. The conference was sponsored by the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences along with a number of technoprogressive groups including the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, geneforum, and ExtraLife.

Far from there being a "right" to enhance oneself and one's progeny, some institutions and activists currently aim to outlaw various biotech interventions. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine prohibits the introduction of "any modification in the genome of any descendants." While it does not have the force of law, UNESCO's Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights urges nations to ban "practices which are contrary to human dignity" and specifically points to reproductive cloning. Bioethicist George Annas wants to go further and have the United Nations adopt a a Convention of the Preservation of the Human Species that would make efforts to enhance human beings by making heritable changes in people's genomes a crime against humanity.

However, using biotech to produce inheritable changes in offspring has already occurred. For example, fertility specialists have intervened in the human germline by helping to create children by means of transferring the cytoplasm from donor eggs into the eggs of patients. This process apparently rejuvenates them. This kind of transfer means that the children inherited the tiny genomes of the cellular powerplants known as mitochondria. Because mitochondria pass down the generations through eggs, the girls will someday bequeath the genes of these donor mitochondria to their own progeny. This process has not been shown to be any more dangerous to children than other in vitro fertilization techniques. Nevertheless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has imposed a moratorium on it.

Nevertheless, some of the concerns that people have about efforts to enhance human beings by changing the human genome are reasonable. Current techniques to install new genes or repair broken genes are too primitive and would likely result in harm to the children born of such interventions. But someday that will not be true—not soon, but someday for sure. So when that day comes, will people have the right to use safe and effective biotech techniques to produce inheritable enhancements in their progeny? Not so fast, say enhancement opponents. They argue that future genetically enhanced children will not have given their consent to be enhanced. Is this a showstopper? After all, obtaining the informed consent of patients before they receive treatments is a bedrock principle of bioethics and clearly future children cannot give their consent to enhancement because they do not yet exist.

First, keep firmly in mind that none of us gave our consent to be born, much less to be born with the specific complement of randomly conferred genes (both good and bad) that we bear. In that moral respect, future genetically enhanced children are no different than non-genetically engineered children today.

Philosopher Fritz Allhoff from the University of Western Michigan speaking on a conference panel about "Democratizing the Genome" grappled with the issue of consent. Allhoff offers a principle derived from the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative that "genetic intervention would be morally permissible only if every future generation would rationally consent to the genetic alterations made in the germ-line." So, to what kinds of genetic interventions would future generations rationally consent?

Allhoff suggests that we might begin with philosopher John Rawls' notion of primary goods. In A Theory of Justice Rawls defines primary goods as those goods that every rational person should value, regardless of his conception of the good. These goods include rights, liberties, opportunities, health, intelligence, and imagination. As Allhoff notes, "Nobody would be better off with less health or fewer talents regardless of her life goals." So, safe genetic interventions that improve a prospective child's health, cognition, and so forth would be morally permissible because we can presume consent from all future generations.

Under this schema, what sorts of interventions would not be morally permissible? Allhoff suggested genetic interventions that would make a child taller or have blue eyes because they are not the sort of qualities to which all members of future generations could be expected to rationally consent. Allhoff believes that his schema answers the objections of bioconservatives who fear that unregulated gene enhancement would allow parents to indulge in frivolous and socially deleterious choices. For example, Allhoff's proposal should allay the fears of conservative bioethicist Nigel Cameron who warned that unregulated reproductive biotech might lead to thousands of Madonna clones or children bred for sports competition.

Philosopher Martin Gunderson from Macalester College offered the notion that perhaps permissible genetic interventions might be limited to those which enhance a person's moral capacities including the ability to reason based on principles, conform to moral rules, be morally perceptive, and have a certain kind of moral empathy. I suppose that future generations might rationally consent to such enhancements if they didn't live in a future world partially populated with moral free-riders who would take advantage of their kinder gentler genetically enhanced fellow citizens.

Allhoff's proposal is attractive—he persuasively shows that we can presume that future generations will consent to interventions that enable them to live more flourishing lives. Who, after all, would want to be stupider or less healthy? But the flip side of Allhoff's proposal is that he is unnecessarily caving into the speculative and overblown fears of bioconservatives that people will "abuse" biotechnology. We can wait to see whether or not Cameron's fear of a world overrun by Madonna clones is at all likely before we start down the road of limiting the safe reproductive choices of parents.