The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Imagine technological innovations enable us to have children free of genetic diseases, or at least with a greatly reduced risk of them. Imagine, further, that we can ensure that future children are significantly smarter, healthier, and generally more capable than those of the past. That seems like a future we should welcome! Nonetheless, many view the prospect of "designer babies" with alarm. A recent article in the prestigious MIT Technology Review illustrates some of the reasons why—and also why these negative reactions are problematic. There is a strong tendency to judge new technological innovations unrealistically high standards, while giving a pass to more serious flaws in the status quo.
The author, science writer Laura Hercher, does not categorically condemn the use of genetic screening to ensure that babies are free of genetic disease. But she worries that it will create dangerous inequalities, because not everyone will have access to the new technologies, especially at first. Some will be unable to do so because of lack of resources or lack of available facilities in their geographic region. Others will refuse to do so because "[r]eproductive technology is less acceptable in racial, ethnic, and religious groups where being seen as infertile carries a stigma." Unless these inequalities are eliminated, she argues, "designer babies" will create dangerous inequalities:
Our discomfort around designer babies has always had to do with the fact that it makes the playing field less level—taking existing inequities and turning them into something inborn. If the use of pre-implantation testing grows and we don't address these disparities, we risk creating a society where some groups, because of culture or geography or poverty, bear a greater burden of genetic disease.
What could change society more profoundly than to take genetic disease—something that has always epitomized our shared humanity—and turn it into something that only happens to some people?
The problem with this sort of critique of designer babies is that it overlooks the far more serious flaws of the status quo. We already have a society where genetic disease "only happens to some people." It only happens to those unlucky enough to be born with the wrong genes. Those in that category—and their families—unquestionably "bear a greater burden of genetic disease" than the rest of us. When I was in high school, there was a boy who lived on the same street who had Down Syndrome. It's pretty obvious that the burden of genetic disease fell far more heavily on him than on me.
Nor is it the case that the dangers of genetic disease are equally distributed across society, in the sense that every family is at roughly equal risk of passing it on to their children. Nothing could be further from the truth. In most cases, your children are at far greater risk of having a genetic disease if there is a history of that disease in your family. Some genetic diseases disproportionately strike particular racial or ethnic groups. Tay-Sachs Disease, for example, is largely confined to Ashkenazic Jews, and a few other groups.
If "designer baby" technology is available to some but not all families, it will still save many parents from the risk of passing on genetic diseases. It will also actually reduce the overall amount of inequality, by reducing the percentage of the population afflicted with those diseases. It could be particularly valuable to families and ethnic groups with a history of genetic diseases that would otherwise present would-be parents with the painful choice of either foregoing children (except, perhaps, by adoption) or risking passing on a debilitating condition.
As with many other technological breakthroughs, designer baby options are likely to become available to the relatively affluent before they spread to the rest of the population. But, based on past precedent, they are also likely to become cheaper over time, and spread to more of the population. Even those who cannot initially take advantage of the new technology (or who simply do not want or need it) can benefit from its introduction. They too will be better off for living in a society where fewer people's potential is stifled by genetic disease, and more can therefore live happy and productive lives.
Imagine that, thanks to technology, the Jones family has a child free of the Down Syndrome or Tay-Sachs Disease that might otherwise have afflicted her. As a result she grows up to be a successful scientist. She and the rest of Joneses won't be the only ones better off as a result. Others will also benefit from whatever new discoveries she makes. If you multiply that kind of effect over thousands of similar cases, it is clear that designer babies can potentially have a great positive impact on society, even if the technology does not become universally available.
As Hercher recognizes, many people who accept the use of technology to forestall disease oppose its use to "enhance" children's capabilities—to make them smarter, fitter, or stronger, for example. Here too, concerns about inequality often crop up. If some families are able to raise their children's IQs through genetic intervention, while others are not, the offspring of the former might have an "unfair" advantage over the latter.
Like Hercher's concerns about the use of technology to prevent genetic disease, this sort of argument overlooks the major inequalities embedded in the status quo. Some people already have huge advantages over others due, in part, to differing genetic endowments. Designer baby technology could well reduce those inequalities at least as much as it increases them. For example, if it allows some large fraction of the population to increase their IQ to, say, 150, children who otherwise would have suffered from mental retardation will benefit a lot more than those who would have had relatively high intelligence anyway.
And, as with preventing disease, genetic enhancement can be a huge boon even to those who do not benefit from it directly. People who are smarter and healthier will also be more productive. And the rest of society—including those do not have any any genetic "enhancements" themselves—can benefit from that additional productivity. For most, the effects are likely to be large enough to swamp any negative impact from having to compete with the "enhanced" for specific jobs or educational opportunities.
If you doubt this, consider whether you would be better off if some cosmic force ensured that no one's IQ but yours could be over, say, 120, but yours was higher than that. You would then be in a much stronger position to compete for jobs requiring intelligence. But, more than likely, you would still be worse off than before, overall, because of the decline in productivity of the rest of society. And if reducing the abilities of other members of society would, on net, make you worse off, the same is likely to be true of blocking technology that could increase them.
In addition to increasing productivity and innovation, genetic enhancement could also help mitigate the problem of political ignorance, which currently has a major negative impact on public policy. Here too, we can benefit from the enhancement of others even if our own genes remain the same.
Neither the prevention of genetic disease nor the enhancement of abilities is a zero-sum game in which gains for some can only come at the expense of others. To the contrary, improvements for some also provide benefits for many others, including those with "normal" genes.
As with other types of medical care, there is a case for having the government subsidize genetic enhancement technology for the children of the poor. To the extent it reduces the incidence of genetic disease, it might even actually reduce health care costs in the long run. But even in the absence of such subsidies, designer baby technology is likely to cause a lot more benefit than harm.
Despite my general enthusiasm for designer babies, I will note a few caveats. First, it would be dangerous to allow government to mandate genetic manipulations. Among other things, rulers could take advantage of this authority to ensure that the next generation shares the political views of the party in power (political orientation is in part genetically determined). The solution to this problem is to leave these matters up to the discretion of parents rather than government officials, subject, perhaps, to some safety standards.
A second danger is that some enhancements may not be socially beneficial, but just fuel for zero-sum "arms races." For example, data suggests that taller people have an advantage in competing for jobs and mates. It is unlikely, however, that society would be better off if everyone was a foot taller. Height is primarily a "positional good" whose benefit comes from being taller than the competition. Using genetic enhancement to make people taller might potentially do more harm than good. We could end up with a taller population that needs more food and other resources as a result, but there would be no overall societal benefit from the change.
I suspect these sorts of cases are the exception rather than the rule. Most enhancements that benefit the individual are probably also socially beneficial, as well. Still, this is an issue worth considering further.
Finally, it is possible that designer baby technology will never advance to the point where we can make more than very modest interventions. And it is also legitimate to consider the potential safety and reliability of new innovations. I lack the scientific expertise to assess these matters. But to the extent that "designer babies" are indeed feasible, we should want the technology to spread as quickly as possible, not be stymied by concerns about inequality.