Design-a-Child

Clearly a gigantic portion of this class concerns genetic engineering, and since we’ve just started to discuss the ethics of doing so, I figured I’d offer up some of my own thoughts about it. A major facet of this technology discussed in the readings up until this point has been the manipulation of embryonic development, and it is this practice that I find most troubling.

Where to begin…

At the end of the last class, one of our peers offered up her own perspective. Referring back to the scene in Gattaca where Vincent’s parents speak to the geneticist about the embryos for his upcoming younger sibling, she did not have a problem with any of the ramifications they (or, rather, the geneticists) were planning for them.  Pale skin, dark hair, hazel eyes, tall stature, intelligence, minimized susceptibility to genetically-acquired diseases or defects…laid out so plainly, these do not seem so offensive. In fact, they’re pretty harmless, the last request actually quite beneficial and something that I would embrace in a heartbeat.

For me, however, a line is crossed when they move from trying to protect the embryo from illness and a healthy outlook for life and into the realm of picking and choosing between personal qualities and characteristics.

You want your child to have golden hair the color of the sun? Great. Deep blue eyes that sparkle like sapphires, dooming your child to innumerable poorly-inspired pick-up lines on a night out? Fantastic. Or how about an impressive set of genitalia so as to avoid that awkward exchange of dialogue as he envies the equipment of another man while administering a mandated urine test? Whatever floats your boat.

Exceptional intelligence? Exceptional athleticism? Six fingers so they can play the crap out of a piano (a blogger from an earlier year has an awesome still that captures this brief moment from Gattaca, definitely check it out)? To me, modifications like these reek less of the happiness of bringing a child into this world and more of purchasing the perfect new armoire for the guest bedroom. Less like a family member, and more like a trophy to show off to your neighbors.

I’m so strongly reminded of the assembly line production of babies from Brave New World. Embryos cultured in bottles, thousands of identical individuals doused in alcohol to claim their intellect, deprived of oxygen to stunt their growth. Those destined to work in the tropics are periodically bombarded with heat to acclimate them to such environs before they’re even born; others are tilted upside-down so that they only feel truly happy when their orientation is inverted. In the same way that those individuals were predestined for their lifestyles, parents who would gift their children with these well-intentioned (though probably motivated somewhat by their own selfishness and pride) characteristics would force them onto a predetermined path of life. To shun these privileges they had been given would be shameful, and even worse, wasteful.

What I mean to say is that part of the great excitement of raising a child (admittedly, from the perspective of somebody who is not a parent) is the magnitude of the potential that lies dormant inside them. They can decide to do whatever they want to do if the effort is put in. Their choices are their own. And while not everybody is happy with their lives, and many would wish they had the opportunities that others receive, I perhaps naively believe that therein lies a certain satisfaction in knowing that your life is your own, your decisions have led you to where you are today, and your achievements are a result of your own hard work and determination.

That sounds really idealistic (because it is), and there’s a lot more I wish I could say but an hour and a half has already been poured into this and I feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface. This would probably make for a better paper topic only because there are so many factors to consider. (Economical, social…let’s be honest, considering how expensive this process is likely to be, what kinds of people are going to be able to take advantage of it, and what others will only be further marginalized by the benefits provided to them?) But in the end, this is just an opinion. Feel free to voice your own in the comments and I’ll try to respond.

– R

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~ by vandyryan on January 27, 2012.

3 Responses to “Design-a-Child”

  1. I loved this post. If we were genetically programmed to be a fantastic tennis player, or a brilliant mathematician, what would be the fun of, well, anything? The notion of “accomplishment” would lose a lot of its meaning. When I played tennis back in high school, I invested HOURS into my training, and when I saw improvements in my game I felt genuinely accomplished, because these improvements were directly linked to my hard work and personal willpower. Would the notion of “hard work” and perseverance completely disappear if we were all designed to be “excellent?”

  2. One of the biggest problems with genetically engineering your child is the expectations that are put on that child to turn out a certain way. “Little C” comes to mind as a good example. Now granted, the story does not have anything to do with genetic engineering, but the woman does have certain expectations for her child because he is a clone of her dead lover. Because of his genetic characteristics, she expects her child to show the same interests as her lover. Similarly, if a couple decides to increase a child’s height to give them an advantage in basketball, what will happen when that child expresses no interest in the sport? The child might pick up some signs of disappointment from his or her parents and suffer consequences for it.

    I understand that these expectations already exist somewhat for parents who have children the old fashioned way. The child will pick up genetic traits and learned behaviors from both parents and that can lead to expectations that sometimes are not met. Naming a child after a father or relative is another way in which parents place their expectations on a child. However, design-a-child takes it to another level of danger with a high potential of damage to the relationship between parents and child if the expectations are not met. On the other hand, choosing these traits may make the parents and child even more compatible than they would be naturally. If the child shows interest and uses the height advantage to excel at basketball, the relationship between parents and child might be much better than it is otherwise. It is a high risk, high reward situation, but could lead to some terrible disappointment as well.

  3. You guys both offer good points, and looking back, “Little C” really is the perfect parallel – his failure to encapsulate flawlessly the essence of his predecessor devastates him. Students these days (certainly myself) frequently perceive a failure on their part to live up to the standards set by themselves, society, and their parents. A less than satisfactory test grade can feel like a punch to the gut for these reasons. But for failing to be EXACTLY like somebody else? Talk about overreaching.

    I especially liked ardicken’s comment concerning hard work. You can see the atrophy of these values directly in Gattaca – Jerome always expected to be first because of the inherent attributes gifted him at “conception”. The fact that he earned second place once in his life was enough to send him over the edge into existential shock and question his self-worth. My fear is that parents would laud their children with scientifically-supported praise (of course you’re the best on the football squad, WE MADE YOU THAT WAY) and then when challenging circumstances arise that test them beyond their “resting state” of achievement, they’d break down and suffer psychologically for it. Sure, the bar would be higher overall. But I’m not entirely sure there’d be an incentive to raise it. I foresee a lot of Jeromes and a declining number of Vincents.

    – R

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