Genetic Engineering

The Case for Designer Babies

We already give our kids music lessons, braces, and tutoring. Why not also give them better genes?


Soon, some of you will try to make "better babies."

Already, people pay labs to examine embryos so they can pick ones with DNA they like. Some screen for gender or eye color. Some screen out certain diseases.

So far, they've been limited to selecting genes that exist in the parents. They haven't designed genes. But that is about to change.

Chinese scientists recently altered DNA in human embryos.

The designed babies—twin sisters—were born with immunity to common strains of HIV, claims the scientist responsible. (The added gene might also shorten lifespans. Most scientists say it's too soon to gene-edit humans safely.)

"He was put under house arrest…and the Chinese are right to punish that scientist," says Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts' medical school in my new video.

Most Americans agree.

In one STAT-Harvard poll, 83 percent said creating more intelligent or stronger babies via gene-editing should be illegal.

"Of course they say that," says Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan. "When you have any kind of intervention into the body that's new, people think it's icky. And they take that feeling of 'ickiness' and they moralize and think it's a moral objection."

Those intuitions threaten medical innovation, says Brennan.

Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of the 43rd president, voiced her moral concerns on Megan Kelly's TV show. She asked, "I mean where does it stop? There should be things that we leave up to God."

"I'm not sure I'm going to take her word for it," scoffs Brennan. "If God appears before me and says, 'Don't do this,' I'll stop."

But why would God say stop?

We already give our kids music lessons, braces, tutoring, karate lessons—any advantage we can. Why not also give them better genes?

Imagine, says Brennan, a world where people are much smarter—maybe smart enough to avoid wars, to take us easily to other planets, and to do other things we can't even imagine.

"Maybe we'll turn them into X-Men," he says, referring to the mutant superheroes in films like the just-released Dark Phoenix.

It would be good to have real X-Men around, saving lives.

Another objection to "customizing" babies is that at first only rich people will be able to pay for it. "This is going to be a new way to create disparities in wealth," says Krimsky.

Brennan counters that you could say this about most new things.

"Every bit of technology that we enjoy today follows the same pattern. You look in your automobile, and you have a CD player or an MP3 player and a GPS…. All of these things, when they first became available, were incredibly expensive…. The rich pay the infrastructure to develop the technologies, and then they spread…become commonplace for everybody to have."

While the rich do often get there first, they also pay for the expensive failures, and they help fund the technologies that get everyone else there second.

Rich people got airplane travel and Lasik surgery first, but I wouldn't want those things banned because of that. A free, competitive market is the best way to ensure prices come down.

"Even if the price came down for this," claims Krimsky, "it would create more injustice."

I accused Krimsky of being an old fuddy-duddy who likes serving on government committees and fears change. In the '70s, he opposed in vitro fertilization.

"I love change!" he responded. "But…there are some things we shouldn't be fiddling around with."

Most countries' governments agree. They've banned creation of designer babies.

But it's going to happen anyway.

The U.S. bans sale of kidneys, observes Brennan, but "that doesn't mean people don't buy kidneys. They just go and buy them elsewhere."

Banning designer baby technology, he predicts, "will just guarantee that it will be available only to the super-rich and only to the politically well-connected."

I think Brennan's right. Designed babies are coming. If not here, then the genetic engineering will happen somewhere.

The U.S. shouldn't keep this technology from those of us who want to give it a try.

Our descendants should have the right to use science to make themselves all that they can be.


NEXT: The Costs of Monitoring Your Prescriptions

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  1. Why not? Just be sure to get a contract that says the gene fiddler takes the kid off your hands if the gene manipulation doesn’t yield the desired result. There’s money in orphans, even defective ones.

  2. OK, so what happens to the spare embryos in your lab, the ones whose genes you don’t get quite right?

    As I understand it, you kill them, or let them die.

    Figure out how to avoid this unpleasant side-effect, and then we can talk about creating X-men.

    If, in order to get our X-men, we can kill off unwanted human beings (who aren’t even in the womb, so it’s not a question of a woman’s right to evict a “trespasser”), then we’re certainly setting a wonderful example for these future X-men – who might take to heart the lesson about superior human beings killing off the “inferior” ones who get in their way.

    1. A fertilized egg is as much a human being as an unfertilized egg or a clump of cancer cells. It can’t think. It can’t sense. It can’t feel pain, discomfort or fear. I see no reason why it should be treated any differently than an unfertilized egg or clump of cancer cells. There’s no magic to the act of fertilization. You’ve simply created a new cell with new DNA. So what? This is not the same as the abortion issue, and certainly not the same as 2nd-3rd trimester abortions.

      1. When, then, does the “magic”, as you put it, happen? Because it happens at some point.

        1. When the frontal cortex develops.

        2. The magic happens sometime between cell differentiation and birth. It probably varies by fetus. I’m not claiming to know everything. I just know a fertilized egg isn’t a person anymore than an unfertilized egg is.

      2. Cancer cells can’t develop into a fully-grown human being.

        Anyway, such dehumanizing rhetoric is inadvisable in the context of creating our new X-men. If we get to dismiss embryos as cancer cells to be removed at will like tumors, then the superior X-men may feel entitled to regard *us* as subhumans to be killed off to make room for the new, superior mutant race.

        1. Many fertilized egg cells can’t develop into a fully-grown human being either. And the ones that can develop need extensive and specific help from at least one other organism. They need a precise application of nutrients, energy, hormones and environment to complete that development. A fertilized egg is no more a person than a blueprint is a house.

          And it’s not dehumanizing. I readily admit that a fertilized egg is human, just not a person.

        2. Kahn!!!

  3. Incidentally, do we *really* know what the Chinese government is doing with this designer-baby thing? If there’s any promise in being able to create human beings to your liking, then you can bet the ChiComs will be all over it, and I wonder what qualities they’ll breed for in their Humans 2.0?

    1. The One Child Policy will be replaced with the Obedient Phenotype Policy.

  4. Hello sir how are you …?
    Nice information about “Designer Babies”
    mom best love for children thank you

  5. Genetically modified babies, or better babies through biotechnology is not advisable. All should receive strict control!
    Respect for biological laws is fundamental.

  6. Genetically modified babies, or better babies through biotechnology is not advisable. All should receive strict control!
    Respect for biological laws is fundamental. Full of love for babies.

  7. While I agree that technology is a goal worth striving for, humans tend to be stupid when they try to cheat the system. The system being a trillion trillion trillion tiny natural selection decisions that create what we get to work with.

    Humans really think we are ready ethically and scientifically to breed the perfect babies?

    If we choose this path, I want all welfare and social safety nets removed. Moral hazard is an important part of this path for some who want to mess with it and they have to live with the consequences.

    1. “If we choose this path, I want all welfare and social safety nets removed.”

      Agreed. However, no taxation without representation! No taxes w/o the bennies that come with them! So my kid? I want him to have one tiny little gene-edit done on him, so that he can’t get and commie bennies… And along with it, is FREE from paying commie-benny taxes!!!

    2. Humans really think we are ready ethically and scientifically to breed the perfect babies?

      Perfect? Certainly not. We’re going to start out with small edits and build up a body of knowledge over decades, if not centuries. As the science comes along, the ethics will develop as well. No one is going to go all in on this next year. It’s going to take a long time.

      1. A follow up question would be what do we do with the mistakes?

        Parents cannot even admit that their Baby Boomer LSD days while they were pregnant caused some birth defects. They just chock it up to bad luck.

        Imagine the denial coming from parents when their request for a baby with a penis and a vagina causes that kid trouble in school. Its they have no idea that these kids are super easy targets for bullying.

        1. A modification big enough to be noticed at school is a long way off. For the foreseeable future we’re talking about tweaks that still leave the child within the normal range of human structure. You wouldn’t know that anything had been done in that Chinese lab if the doctor hadn’t come out and admitted it. This falls under the idea that the ethics will develop as the technology does over many decades.

      2. Yeah, just like planned economies, right? We are awesome at managing endlessly complex systems.

  8. When you create a human being, you are accepting responsibility for that human being. It’s health and safety is held in trust by you until such time as she can take those responsibilities for herself.

    In case it is not painfully obvious, performing unproven medical experiments on your trustee is ethically horrible. Sure, we give our kids music lessons and vaccinations. But we don’t perform medical experiments on them, trying to change their eye color.

    When you create embryos, even if they are not humans, you have the responsibility to treat them like humans in your trust who may be brought to term. While there may be an ethical case for performing a risky procedure on those kids- say, in cases where the embryo is known to have a genetic defect and the potential for a cure outweighs the risks- it would be a very different thing to do the procedure just to get aesthetic qualities you like. That is literally putting your aesthetic interests ahead of the child.

    I for one look forward to the day when we CAN safely design our children. We are not at that point, and Stossel is wrong to defend the practice performed in China. That asshole scientist and the mothers performed medical experiments on human beings. The irony is that this Chinese scientist probably did more to damage the possibility of embryonic gene editing than any other person, by giving restrictionists exactly the argument they needed to outright ban the practice.

  9. Didn’t some people make the same arguments about birth control, and how we should not meddle with the intent of god/nature to smother us with a dozen or more kids per couple?

  10. I didn’t think this required elaboration, but what do you think will occur when we start to develop a healthier, fitter race of people that can you can only join by being born into money?

    1. You know who else pushed for development of a master race?

      1. Margaret Sanger?

      2. Handsome Dick Manitoba?

      3. OBL?

    2. Then we’ll just have to use the mechanisms of the state to make it more “fair” won’t we? They have a great track record. forget fiat money, we got fiat people.

  11. I would definitely fear that the rhetoric and hubris have far surpassed the actual scientific knowledge. Living organisms–especially complex ones like mammals–are an emergent order that has naturally evolved. Interactions between genes, the environment, and other genes are unfathomably complex. As such, I wonder if “centrally planning” such sophisticated systems will prove as successful as centrally planning economies. Now, if the task is, for instance, to attempt to ‘correct’ a mutation, or to get immune cells to kill cancer cells, it seems worthwhile to at least give it a shot, since it would relieve human suffering if it works, and the individual undergoing the therapy can consent with information. But this process of manipulating people’s genomes who cannot consent for the purpose of “designing” them strikes me as very unethical (especially given the high likelihood of unintended consequences).

  12. yeah, I don’t see any unintended consequences coming from this at all. Nothing to see hear.

    Or perhaps this would be like the vaccine debate on steroids. Eventually the state would find its way in to coerce parents to edit their children (for the good of us all, diseases and whatnot), otherwise, how will they obtain their state or federal license to have a baby in the first place?

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  15. Awesome post, very cool subject!
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