Genetic Engineering: Tempted Down Eugenics Path by Promise of Designer Babies

Updated on January 9, 2019
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatric psychology and behavioral health.

Human beings have always endeavored to better themselves, wanting to be healthier, faster, more attractive, and brighter, always dreaming of attaining perfection. This ideal has been especially focused upon by parents who want to give their children the most advantages possible.

Hundreds of years before test tube babies came about, alchemists believed that small, flawless humans could be formed artificially with a variety of substances. These included sperm, human blood, powdered minerals, excrement and the sap of white willows. Sometimes animals served as surrogates for the developing homunculus, other times a large glass or lead container was believed to suffice. There are even reports of the use of pumpkins for the “growing” of one of these small beings, which were believed to develop into a baby that could be educated and trained. Paracelsus, a prominent physician and alchemist published a “recipe” for creating a homunculus, which included the suggestion that all steps of the procedure be carried out in secret.

While there are no credible reports of any actual pumpkin children being created, four centuries later we were able to develop real medical capabilities which allowed conception to occur outside the human body. With the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” in 1978, couples with fertility problems were given new hope regarding their ability to have a child.

In the wake of this innovation, new reproductive technology has emerged. This has included more advanced methods for conducting in vitro fertilization (IVF), recombinant genetics, and now genetic engineering. But these developments have also led to struggles regarding the ethics and future of this technology. Some of the issues that have resulted in controversy include state and federal power, professional standards, and women’s reproductive rights. Another major issue has involved selective breeding on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, maternal age and genetic risk for a variety of diseases.

The year Louise Brown turned 11 researchers progressed past the ability to create life in a laboratory petri dish. They found a way to gaze into the embryo’s genetic makeup and predict what life might be like for that individual. These predictions were, of course, laden with value judgments of what is good and bad, which attributes most people would choose for their children if given the chance, and which attributes they would select out, if possible. As technology developed further, the ability to choose a child’s characteristics became a real option and potential parents were given a never before realized power - the power to preview and choose the genetic traits of their future children.

Just as Paracelsus believed that his procedure for creating a homunculus worked best if done in secret, science is quietly handing humans the ability to direct our own evolution by willingly altering our genetic makeup. The potential exists to select out the genes that make us sick and kill us, those that predispose us to develop cancer, heart disease, depression, addictions and obesity. In the near future it will likely become possible to choose to retain only those genes that could make us healthier, stronger, more intelligent or even better looking.

But just because we can, does that mean that we should?

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis allows for the  selection of specific traits for inclusion of exclusion in an embryo
Preimplantation genetic diagnosis allows for the selection of specific traits for inclusion of exclusion in an embryo

Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, Genetic Engineer of Designer Babies

Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg of The Fertility Institutes has worked for more than a decade to improve the ability to genetically engineer the physical features of babies. He employs procedure known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to sort and select embryos based on gender and eye color. He intends to try to select for other traits in the coming year including skin color and hair color.

After announcing this, he and his clinic drew widespread outrage. “Screening embryos for skin color isn’t about reproductive choice,” said Osagie Obasogie, CGS Senior Fellow and University of California Professor. “It’s about leveraging social prejudices to try to give your kid a leg up. This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how reproductive and genetic technologies could fundamentally reshape race relations.”

Steinberg routinely uses the media to promote his efforts which many have said are akin to eugenics, in order to increase revenue. And the revenue resulting from his work is definitely high. In 2007, an Australian couple with three sons paid Steinberg $40,000 to have a daughter. This is a single patient.

PGD can cost $20,000 or more per attempt and most attempts fail. Many people try again, sometimes several times before giving birth to a healthy baby. This obviously means only the most affluent parents can use PGD procedures to select the traits of their babies.

Social sex selection has been gaining acceptance in the U.S., even when it means IVF and PGD are marketed to people with no fertility problems and no heritible genetic conditions. Most fertility practitioners who offer gender selection justify it as “family balancing” in families who have more than two children of the same sex and none of the other sex.

However, Steinberg is marketing PGD to couples with no genetic risk factors regardless of family makeup. In fact, the majority of couples undergoing in vitro fertilization at the Steinberg’s clinic, do so only in order to choose the gender. They are not required to even have a first child before requesting the gender of their baby.

The percentage of PGD procedures carried out at Steinberg’s clinics is extraordinarily high. According to the annual Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report (2015), almost 90 percent of all IVF procedures conducted at Steinberg’s clinics are PGD procedures. Comparatively, the national average is 5 percent and out of 464 U.S. clinics, only four others use the technique in 50 percent or more of procedures. This suggests that while the websites for Steinberg’s clinics underscores how he aims to provide the highest levels of infertility care available, the vast majority of patients are not seeking help for infertility problems.

An Early PGD Pioneer Has a Change of Heart

Twenty five years ago, Dr. Jeffrey Nisker, one of the leading PGD developers, was helping to push the boundaries of reproductive technology. He saw the PGD procedure as a triumph, allowing infertile couples to have children, and those carrying the genes for disorders to have healthy children. But when ethics became an issue, he felt morally bound to stop pursuing this line of research altogether.

"I was enamoured by the science. But, you know, I had never really thought about where it was going,” Dr. Nisker said.

That soon changed when news of his use of the procedure was publicized, leading to non-stop calls. The problem, as he saw it, was that almost none of these calls came from those wanting to prevent the child from being born with a disease. He was stunned to find that almost all of these couples were seeking to choose the gender or physical characteristics of their child. He was even more surprised to realize that the majority of those seeking his help were fertile. “I never thought for one minute this would be used by fertile couples," he said.

As soon as he realized where this all was going, he gave back a huge amount of grant money and closed his clinic. Nisker’s position is best summed up in his play, Orchids (1994), where a doctor teaching medical students says, "In a perfect world, exploration of the ethical and social implications of genetic science should precede research. Without careful constraints, the rapid pace may be harmful."

Hoping for greater public debate and discussion, Nisker remains concerned about the direction genetic testing is taking. "This is scary to me because I'm one who doesn't believe in social engineering. If we strive for perfection, we are going to blame people with disabilities. We're not going to accommodate them, or support them with tax dollars."

Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is being used to create so called "designer babies"
Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is being used to create so called "designer babies"

Will Genetic Engineering Usher in a New Era of Eugenics?

Critics ranging from certain religious leaders to political conservatives to advocates for the disabled are fearful that a new age of eugenics may be around the corner. Instead of being motivated by racists, despots or elitists, it is believed this era will instead be generated by parental aspirations and the quest for the perfect child. The issue which the controversy centers around is embryo disposal. The embryos that are not implanted because they don’t possess the characteristics being selected for, are destroyed. This is obviously unacceptable for many, particularly those who believe that life begins at conception.

Discarding embryos because of certain characteristics is problematic enough when screening occurs to eliminate a heritable disease. Additionally, there continues to be much disagreement regarding which conditions it should be permissible to screen and select for. The majority of people agree that screening should be allowed for deadly diseases. Yet for other conditions there is more argument, with those on one side saying that even mild conditions can seriously affect a person’s life and those on the other side saying this is a slippery slope.

For example, doctors were strongly criticized in 2007 for allowing a couple to use PGS so their child could avoid an inherited squint. Questions being considered include whether these types of procedures should be permitted for mild or manageable conditions, those that only increase disease risk but don’t determine it, or those that only develop later in life. Clearly, given that these questions regarding how serious a condition must be to warrant screening for it are still hotly debated, screening for cosmetic reasons such as hair and eye coloring would create a major dispute.

NASA Believes Future of Genetically Engineered Babies Plausible

In 2011, NASA compiled a list of the most plausible science fiction films (Zielinski, 2011). The film rated as most credible was Gattaca (1998). The name of the movie alludes to it’s theme of genetics engineering as it is an acronym for Guanine, Adenine, Thymine, Thymine, Adenine, Cytosine, a DNA sequence made up of the four nucleotide acids. The movie tells the story of a man born “naturally” in a time when almost all people are genetically engineered, which greatly limited his life options due to the status of being considered “invalid”.

NASA’s assertion that the dystopian world portrayed in GATTACA could become reality before long is echoed by others. Dr. Roger Pierson, a fertility specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, says. "Twenty years from now, you have to wonder if all babies will be conceived by IVF." He goes on to say, "We are not going to slow the technology, so the question is, how do we use it?"

While considering people who are not produced through embryo selection and enhancement techniques invalid is a frightening prospect for many, there are those in the academic and medical communities who argue that individuals who procreate are morally obliged to improve the species.

The movie GATTACA envisions a future world inhabited by genetically engineered people where those who aren't are considered invalid.
The movie GATTACA envisions a future world inhabited by genetically engineered people where those who aren't are considered invalid.

The Moral Obligation to Use Genetic Screening and Selection Techniques

Julian Savulescu, the controversial Oxford University bioethicist, believes that society should do more than merely allow such screening. He claims parents have a moral obligation to select embryos that are "most likely to have the best life, based on the available genetic information." Termed procreative beneficence, he states that the argument against his position, primarily that he is advocating a world with little diversity, is false.

To the contrary, Savulescu disputes the idea that everyone would select the same option, asserting that there are a number of equally good genomes that exist and would be selected by different couples with different goals. For example, it is often believed that being tall would always be selected over being short since the former is preferable. Yet Savulescu argues that a tall brilliant rower is not better than a short brilliant gymnast such that the value of characteristics cannot be assumed apart from an environment. So height is advantageous for some purposes and disadvantageous for others. He states it is impossible to determine if it is better, for example, to be brilliant, creative and bipolar compared to being of average intelligence and creativity, but free of mental illness (Savulescu, 2015).

Yet, there are several arguments that this position does not address. First, is the obvious one, the one of financial resources and socioeconomic status. As has been pointed out, only those with enough money will be able to use PGS to select the characteristics of their children. Since low socioeconomic status is viewed negatively, traits commonly selected out will become much more prevalent in low SES families. This will lead to discrimination based on the association with low SES. Second, features that provide greater ability such as intelligence, physical strength and stamina and the like will give those with greater financial resources an even larger advantage. Third, there’s no support for the argument that people will make different choices ensuring diversity continues. Based on his own example of height, being tall is in fact valued over being short especially for boys. Parents wouldn’t know whether a child would go on to become a brilliant gymnast or rower or anything else before the fact. So selecting shorter heights because this is advantageous for certain areas isn’t a guarantee that the child will succeed at or even have any interest in trying to succeed at any of those areas. The suggestion that parents might select a genetic profile that includes a predisposition for bipolar disorder if it also ensured their child would be brilliant and creative over one that would rule out mental illness but lead to other attributes being average seems highly unlikely. For the most part, people value similar attributes regarding many physical and psychological characteristics so there would be a very real problem of limited diversity being introduced into the gene pool.

Even if genetic engineering techniques became widely accepted, it is improbable that everyone across the world would have equal ability to use it for many years in the future, if ever. This means there would always be those who were born with genetic abnormalities. Because of this, experts continue to demonstrate concern over whether options that permanently alter the human genome might lead to changing public acceptance of people with genetic conditions and disabilities. Some worry that discrimination may be directed not just at people with certain disabilities but at those who possess physical characteristics viewed as undesirable such as dark skin, eyes or hair. If genetics engineering techniques begin to be used, It stands to be seen whether we will accept those who are or choose to remain different or if we come to prioritize a society characterized by physical and psychological perfection.

Conclusions

Recent technological advances now permit us to scan every chromosome in a single embryonic cell, to test for genes involved in hundreds of disorders many of which are clearly life-threatening. And soon DNA microchips capable of analyzing more than a thousand traits at once, those linked not just to a child's health but to enhancements – genes that influence height, intelligence, hair, skin and eye colour and athletic ability.

While genetic tests were devised to help those suffering from infertility and to help improve the health and well-being of the population they are now being used for far more than that. Couples people fully capable of having babies without aid are opting for IVF and embryo screening and selection, paying huge amounts so that they can have greater genetic control over their offspring.

As Pierson pointed out, scientific advancements are a Pandora’s box of sorts. Once a discovery has been made it cannot be unmade and people will find ways to use it even if the scientific community or various political, religious or other group believes it isn’t ethical to do so. Therefore, the question isn’t how to prevent something from being developed but how best to use it once it is. It is up to us to spend the time necessary to determine, to the best of our ability, what positive and negative consequences scientific discoveries may have before employing them. This will allow us to use such advances as responsibly as possible for the betterment of society and the human race while preventing potential harm to ourselves and our children.

References

Bortolotti, L. (2009). Do We Have an Obligation to Make Smarter Babies?.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2015). ART Success Rates. Retrieve from https://www.cdc.gov/art/artdata/index.html

Savulescu, J. (2015). Procreative beneficence, diversity, intersubjectivity, and imprecision. The American Journal of Bioethics, 15(6), 16-18.

Shanks, P., (2018). Steinberg, Still Starting to Sell Eugenics. Biopolitical Times. Center for Genetics and Society. Retrieved from https://www.geneticsandsociety.org/biopolitical-times/steinberg-still-starting-sell-eugenics-0

Zielinski, S., (2011). NASA Picks Best & Worst Sci-Fi Movies. What Are Yours? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/nasa-picks-best-worst-sci-fi-movies-what-are-yours-41527422/#CUJ0FM6h4Cj4X0UU.99

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Natalie Frank

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      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        6 months ago from Chicago, IL

        That is a terrible thing for a wife to say to a husband, Pamela. I wonder what they'd tell the child about why they decided to use invetro to conceive. We often want to see ourselves in our child and to conceive in this way to have a more attractive child because we don't think our spouse is good looking enough says to them that's all we value about them. If that's the case that is what the child will grow up learning is important in a relationship. Thanks for weighing in. I appreciate it.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        7 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I always thought of infertile couples using these technologies. It really is a Pandora's box. I recently heard of a woman who wanted invetro fertilization because her husband wasn't attracive enough. I think that is an awful thing to tell a husband.

        There is a case to be made for people who have genetic diseases I suppose, but I am against these procedures to give parents a blue eyed blond or any child based on looks. I am sure the technology will proceed, but I don't like the idea because of all the awful implications. Your informative article certainly makes you think!

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        7 months ago from USA

        I have MS which is genetically linked in ways that are not fully understood yet. I also have an only child who has grown up seeing me struggle a lot. She wonders if she may get it. If I were given the choice in advance to decide via genetic engineering to wipe out MS from the slate of genetic risks, I’d spare a future child what I’ve gone through. It doesn’t make a life with MS like mine less respectable or worthy. I just would wish for less physical suffering for my progeny. I’ve lived a decent life in spite of my disability, certainly not because of it.

        Selection based on parental preference for gender, hair/eye/skin color, or a squint? I’m not supportive. We’ve seen the effects that gender selection (albeit from a different source) can have on society from China’s one-child policy. There’s a point at which parents are being just being picky.

      • MizBejabbers profile image

        Doris James MizBejabbers 

        7 months ago from Beautiful South

        Natalie, this is a very complicated issue, and you have covered it well. I did enjoy your article. To me it is sickening to see the selfish side of the wealthy who may want a blond, blue-eyed girl with curly hair instead of the dark brown-eyed boy they probably will have. However, I’m all for using gene manipulation to bring healthier, stronger individuals into the world if for no other reason than to save the human race. We march the streets preaching that every sex act must end in a pregnancy, every pregnancy must be brought to term, and every weak and defective infant born must be saved at all costs to the family and to society. While this idea has yet to breed us into oblivion, we seem to be headed there. We have become a society of weak ill individuals who are now demanding that the government provide us with pregnancy to the grave medical care, no matter what the cost. That leads me to believe that there really is something in the idea of survival of the fittest, as cruel as it may sound.

        It is bad enough to know that one has inherited painful debilitating diseases or conditions from both sides of the family, but it is even worse to know that one has passed these conditions onto their children. And that those conditions resulted in the death of a sibling and one’s own child. If these alterations are available to everyone who wants to have a healthy strong child, I’m certainly not for trying to make them illegal just because rich John Doe wants a child of a certain description or gender. That might weed itself out in the future if the genetically altered “perfect looking” baby dies or lives a life of pain because that part of its conception was overlooked in the search for physical beautification.

      • ValKaras profile image

        Vladimir Karas 

        7 months ago from Canada

        Natalie---Following is not an attempt to defend my simplistic approach to this incredibly complex matter in which I have no education to offer any insight, just clarifying my emphasis on the natural inclination of (any) species to insist on good or better offspring.

        I understand that transfusion and organ transplant don't alter the genetic blueprint of the recipient, just like dentures and protheses don't (LOL)---but the example was only to point at the already existing medical procedures aiming at making bodies more functional.

        Of course, I am generalizing here, not sticking to the genetic engineering theme, but simply wondering why anybody wouldn't want a genetic improvement---if they are already agreeing over, say, a cosmetic plastic surgery.

        In layman's terms, if science would offer to clean my genome of all the crap, it would still be "me" at the end. You are a psychologist, so you figure it out, if the problem with potential engineering of beautiful babies could be about unconscious jealousy of parents, who could not say "look, she has my big mouth, my thin hair, my problematic skin.." --- but instead ---damn it, she is nothing like me, she is beautiful!!!".

        I think it will take a big step in the evolution of collective consciousness before humans come to terms with something so progressive as genetic engineering.

        To allow the satiric in me to open his big mouth---look, Natalie, we don't know how to properly utilize something little like smart phones as we are texting while driving. Our brains can't process something new like genetic engineering. "Hey, we don't want any Frankensteins around!"--- so we say, and many of those gods in celestial real estate would agree, while insisting that we remain "in their own image"---imperfect.

        Now, if you don't want to get another defensive comment of this size---just don't respond to this one (LOL).

        By the way, I admire your mind, Natalie.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        7 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Thanks for the comment, Vladimir. I am also quite wordy and I think you only explained it to the extent you made your point. I'm glad you brought a dissenting opinion into the discussion. It's too complex an issue to only look at it one way. There are obviously a lot of positives to genetic engineering no doubt. There are a number of difference between genetic engineering and transfusions however. First, while you are correct in saying that it and organ transplants bring something of the donor into the patient, it doesn't permanently alter the persons germline. This means that any changes not only don't create phenotypical changes in the patient, they don't effect that person's progeny. The only exception is a bone marrow transplant which does permanently alter the DNA to become that of the donor. However, to conduct this type of transplant you must first kill off the person's own bone marrow using radiation and high doses of chemo. This will also kill off any sperm or eggs such that they can't reproduce after the procedure unless they have frozen their sperm or eggs. Genetic engineering does permanently alter the persons germline such that the changes are forever passed down in their progeny. If there are unanticipated affects of getting rid of a portion of a gene or an entire gene that can't be reversed once it's no longer in the population. It also means a constant decrease in diversity as people go about choosing not only to rid their future progeny of diseases but go about choosing how tall they are, what color hair, eye and skin color and they have and similar, as well as possibly choosing characteristics that are important to them such as dimples, thick hair, long legs, or even things like bigger breasts etc.

        As for mountain goats, we already do this, choosing mates based on what attracts us and what largely attracts us are things that represent different strengths whether it's physical build, intelligence, financial security, maternal characteristics etc. Mountain goats don't have the benefits of genetic engineering either :)

        Thanks again for providing a different viewpoint of what is a very complicated issue which we will need to talk about for some time to come.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        7 months ago from Chicago, IL

        I know how you feel, Dora. It's tough to know what to think about new technology that has both the potential for great good as well as great ill. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        7 months ago from Chicago, IL

        It is a fine line, Liz. With every technological advance, we have ethical issues related to things we never had to worry about previously. The internet is a prime example. We let it take off without first doing our best to consider the ramifications regarding having so much information that might be able to be accessed by people with advanced know how or what other illegal acts or invasions of privacy the technology might be used for. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        7 months ago from Chicago, IL

        I agree with you Bill. I think for me it's the idea of a slippery slope - once we are able to change the genes in an embryo, were do we stop? Even the idea of permanently altering genes related to diseases can be a problem when we don't know exactly what else that gene might control. For example, sickle cell anemia is a terrible disease. People in many African countries carry the gene and so it is common for both people in a couple to carry it. This means losing children, sometimes multiple multiple children to the disease is not unusual. Yet if we managed to discover the way to alter genetic makeup to get rid of disease there are two major problems. One, those in some of the countries it's most prevalent in won't have the financial resources to take advantage of it and since it won't get us anything we aren't likely to offer help so they'll be able to. The other is what happens if everyone everywhere does have equal access to it. The gene for sickle cell also provides protection from Malaria, a common cause of death in many of the countries where sickle cell occurs with the highest frequency. So while getting rid of sickle cell would save a lot of children and adolescents for suffering a long illness and painful death, without finding another way to alleviate malaria world wide, we just exchange one horror for another.

      • ValKaras profile image

        Vladimir Karas 

        7 months ago from Canada

        Natalie---My comment has no ambition to match the eloquence of your article, and it is not malicious to water down its theme. Just, please, bear with my taste for simplicity.

        Just yesterday my wife and I were watching on "Love Nature" channel how a female mountain goat observed a match of two males to qualify for mating with her, by coming out a winner. If you allow a little humor for a spice, on their first wedding night it would not be she to say: "Sorry, I got a splitting headache" - but him, judging by the nature of the competition.

        But here I come with my point.

        If even a mountain goat insists on procreation with stronger specimens for the future of the species--what is making us homo sapientes (Latin plural of "sapiens") so dumb not to use these brilliant scientific discoveries outlined in your article?

        O.K., I think I warned you about my taste for simplification, and in more instances than I care to mention, I have noticed humans' passion for complicating their lives to a point where they get lost in their own mazes.

        This would be one of them. For, if we can use blood transfusion and organ transplants, which in one way or another bring into the receiving body something of donor's nature, what's the fuss about genetical engineering.

        Maybe we should start learning something from mountain goats, unless we are so delighted with all genetic flaws displayed in the rather unholy picture of this world.

        Sorry for this lengthy comment, we older folks think we are more convincing if we say more.

        I enjoyed your article a lot.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        7 months ago from The Caribbean

        Still not sure what or how to think about the facts you laid out here. Anyway, thanks for the information. Some things to ponder in different areas and on different levels.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        7 months ago from UK

        There is a fine dividing line to be trod between giving nature a helping hand and interfering with the natural process too much. This is a very topical issue.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        7 months ago from Olympia, WA

        The whole concept disgusts me, and I would be hard-pressed to give you a precise reason as to why. I think this is where science crosses an invisible line, one that should never be crossed.

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