The Prospect of Designer Babies: Is it Inevitable?

By Michael CatalanoSciences, Cycle 3, 2012



It might seem like an abstract idea to many, but we may soon be capable of selecting the traits of unborn children. There have been numerous ethical approaches to the issue, with potential benefits and harms outlined, but few scholars have really looked into the great potential for its development as a common practice in society. Studies have shown that the public is opposed to the technologies, but it is necessary to consider the possible scenarios that can alter people’s opinions. Through my survey of undergraduate students, I plan to fill in the areas that have been overlooked. What if the practice is not regulated and others in society begin to use it? The public may be against it based on moral views, but we must consider the possibility that it may develop regardless.


Introduction and Background Information

Consider a world where we control genetics and know exactly which segments of DNA code for certain traits. Imagine the opportunity to eradicate all genetic disease with a few simple alterations. Envision a society in which prospective parents can flip through a catalog and shop for traits to “design” their children. This imagined world may soon become possible through the rapid development of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is the deliberate modification of an organism through the alteration of its genetic code. By removing sections of an organism’s DNA and replacing them with new segments, geneticists can artificially select for certain traits (Simmons). These techniques are being perfected through experiments on plants and animals, and as scientists continue to uncover the secrets of the human genome, we are progressing towards this tempting, futuristic world. Engineered organisms, such as glow-in-the-dark cats, abnormally muscular cows, and insect-resistant corn, have already been successfully developed, and designer babies may be next (Simmons). A designer baby is defined as “a baby whose genetic make-up has been selected in order to eradicate a particular defect, or to ensure that a particular gene is present,” and the coinage of this term by the Oxford English Dictionary demonstrates the importance of the developing issue (“Designer Baby,” OED). The Human Genome Project has already mapped out every gene and chemical base pair of the human genome, and scientists continue to uncover the effects and interactions of each gene (“About the Human Genome Project”). And now, the process of in-vitro fertilization “provides access to the genetic material within” (Andrews 99).

Geneticists have already successfully tested for genetic disorders in early stages of embryonic development, but what is next? It might seem like an abstract idea to many, but we may soon be capable of selecting the traits of unborn children. There have been numerous ethical approaches to the issue, with potential benefits and harms outlined, but few scholars have really looked into the great potential for its development as a common practice in society. Studies have shown that the public is opposed to the technologies, but it is necessary to consider the possible scenarios that can alter people’s opinions. Through my survey of undergraduate students, I plan to fill in the areas that have been overlooked. What if the practice is not regulated and others in society begin to use it? The public may be against it based on moral views, but we must consider the possibility that it may develop regardless.

Previous Studies and Thesis

There have been numerous propositions, ideas, and arguments by scholars on the future of human genetic engineering. Several scholars, such as Gerhard Meisenberg and David Resnik, look at public opinion and ethical arguments. Others, including Eric Swedin, look at the possibilities of other countries influencing our decisions regarding the technology. And some, including Scott F. Gilbert, look at the government regulations and actions that may become necessary. What hasn’t been proposed and looked into as much, however, is how the social pressure exerted by doctors and other Americans will impact the way we look at the technology, which is what I hope to add to the conversation. By analyzing both sides of the debate and my survey of fellow college students, I will argue the idea that even though genetic enhancement is widely viewed as immoral and unethical, it has the potential to inevitably develop as a common practice in society.

Procedure and Implications

Based on the strong arguments against genetic engineering and the appeal of human rights, it is not surprising that so many people see this new technology as immoral. There is a strong popular sentiment against the alteration of natural processes, especially when it comes to human life. But how will opinions change in different social contexts? How will prospective parents react if they know that other children will be engineered to be superior? My survey analyzes how people’s opinions change when they are told that other children will be modified to be smarter, taller, and more athletic, and it has become evident that even though many are against the technology, they become more likely to use it in this situation. My research looks into the opinions of college students that are looking to have children in the future, for genetic engineering may become possible by then. Therefore, it is important to see how they would react to different situations so that we can properly prepare and regulate the system to keep it from becoming out of control. If people truly are so strongly against the technology, they must recognize this and understand how to push for regulations. We must look at the uncertainties and predict the possibilities of future social pressures in order to make sure that the government can take proper actions to keep it from becoming widespread.

Technological Developments—Past, Present, and Future

Even though human genetic engineering has not yet been fully developed, there are currently similar procedures. A number of recent developments in science and technology that indicate that it may soon become possible. First of all, in the process of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, geneticists analyze gametes for genetic illness with the use of in vitro fertilization, and only those that are not affected are selected and implanted (Simmons). Preimplantation genetic diagnosis is much less intrusive than the developing processes of engineering, but it is still stirring up controversy. Another technology that is currently in use is nuclear transfer, in which the nucleus is removed from a zygote and replaced with the nucleus of another egg or somatic cell. Ooplasm transfer is also being used to implant ooplasm into a zygote that still contains the original nucleus. This is done in order to allow for the modification of mitochondrial DNA in the cytoplasm. Finally, there is the use of artificial chromosomes to carry genes and structures without interfering with real chromosomes (Resnik).

While there are currently functioning methods to genetically modify human beings, more processes are being developed with even greater capabilities. These processes involve the actual modification and alteration of the genes of a gamete or somatic cell. The renowned Human Genome Project has successfully mapped out the 20,000-25,000 human genes and 3 billion chemical base pairs of the human genome, and the information is now stored in public databases (“About the Human Genome Project”). It has provided the effects of each gene, and scientists continue to work on uncovering how they interact with each other and how they are affected by the environment. However, careful research still needs to be conducted so that geneticists can learn which genes code for which traits. For example, one specific sequence exists that determines a person’s intelligence. Rather, a series of codes exists, along with external developmental factors, that ultimately determines a person’s intelligence. This holds true for many other traits as well. But as these uncertainties are being looked into, we are moving closer and closer to the possibilities of designer babies. Once the techniques are developed, we must determine how to use them and when they are acceptable. The numerous discrepancies in methods and uses must be looked into, such as the difference between germline engineering, which is the alteration of gametes and genes that are passed on to offspring, and somatic cell engineering, which is the alteration of normal human cells to treat or cure a disease. The alterations of somatic cells are not passed on to offspring, and this is often more widely accepted. Also, there is the difference between therapy and enhancement. Therapy is the use of techniques to cure or treat disease, while enhancement is the process of selecting traits and “designing” babies (Resnik). Each of these possibilities has drawn strong conflict, but the main ethical debate focuses on the processes of germline enhancement.

The Ethical Debate—Potential Benefits

The rapidly growing developments stated above are providing humans with unimaginable power that can alter the course of humanity. Therefore, it is something that must be taken care of and looked at carefully, which is exactly what scholars have been doing for the past couple of decades. I will begin by analyzing the views of those that support the use of human genetic engineering. First of all, they point out the fact that scientists could prevent diseases, such as Huntington’s disease and Down syndrome, by directly manipulating genes and implanting “healthy” genetic sequences into human germ cells (Resnik). They make a good point when they explain that when gene therapy is used to prevent disease, it is not much different than the medicine and procedures to cure it (Powell, Russell, and Buchanan). Princeton Professor Lee Silver supports this idea with the following claim: “Some people say we should not go against nature, but that’s illogical because every time we cure a disease we go against nature” (Schichor, Simonet, and Canano). Some even go as far as saying that purchasing traits for an unborn child is comparable to paying for piano lessons or private athletic training (Powell, Russell, and Buchanan). Supporters also explain the selection of a child’s traits can be beneficial. With the ability to select physical, mental, and even emotional characteristics, parents will be able to design the “perfect family” that they imagine. There will be no disappointments and no surprises—parents can imagine what they want, and they can get it (Resnik). Princeton scientist Joe Tsien said, “Everyone wants to be smart; therefore, everyone should want genetic engineering” (Annas 766). He believes that if the process is making people smarter, better looking, and more athletic, it should be desired by everyone. According to Tsien and other scholars, this would not only improve the lives of individuals, there would also be social advancements due to improvements in intelligence and productivity. All of this would improve the human gene pool for future generations (Resnik).

Another well-developed argument to support the use of human genetic technologies is presented by Powell, Russell, and Buchanan in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. Their intention in the article is to “show how intentional genetic modification can overcome many of the natural impediments to the human good.” They draw a comparison between “Intentional Genetic Modification” and “Unintentional Genetic Modification,” or natural selection. They claim that “natural selection never gets the job done” and does not achieve perfection—it is not the “master engineer” that people make it out to be. When many people talk about natural selection and evolution, they discuss it as if it is working towards perfection as an engineer with a goal in mind, which is not the case. As the environment continues to change, we continue to adapt, but we can never be perfectly adapted. “Suboptimality” persists because of natural selection, and even if the traits developed were “optimal” for the environment, there is always room for improvement. Intentional genetic modification can, according to the scholars, assure that valuable genotypes persist and allow us to change without the long and painful process of natural selection. For natural selection to work on a population and make progress, a large part of the population has to suffer and die off due to a lack of adaptations—“it requires the elimination of the bad for the proliferation of the good.” If we work to engineer humans, however, this will not have to happen. Unintentional genetic modification is “like the work of a morally blind, fickle, and tightly shackled tinkerer.” Intentional genetic modification, on the other hand, can be the “master engineer;” it can improve this process and go beyond enhancement to total transformation. Therefore, it will not only allow us to direct the course of human evolution, but it will bring benefits and “optimal” traits that would otherwise not develop. Therefore, with these possible benefits, Powell, Russell, and Buchanan claim that it should be allowed. They acknowledge that there are risks, and they propose that we look for ways to reduce any possible consequences, but is this proposition for regulation enough to draw opponents to their side?

The Ethical Debate—Potential Consequences

While the supporters have a strong series of arguments, the opposing views of genetic engineering are much more prevalent and seem to have the upper hand in the debate. The most widespread reason for this opposition is simply the idea that human reproduction and child development should not be interfered with. Many claim that we should not attempt to “play God” in the natural world (Resnik). People also make the strong emotional claim that they would love their children no matter what, and “being a good parent is surely not about enhancing our children but about enhancing our children’s lives through making them feel loved, accepted and wanted” (Fletcher 28). From a more ethical outlook, some scholars claim that altering a child’s genes before he or she is born would be a violation of rights, and it would “sacrifice freedoms, promote competition, and accentuate hierarchy” (Spier 1809). R.E. Spier, in analysis of works by Francis Fukuyama and Gregory Stock, explains that we would lose a sense of humanity. We would become “fyborgs,” or functional cyborgs, with “extracorporeal electromechanical devices to improve senses and organs” (Spier 1807). Fukuyama asks us to look into three issues when considering genetic engineering: “the right of a human to be a human; the dignity of a human, which would be lessened by deliberate genetic manipulation; and the preservation of human nature” (Spier 1809). George Annas also makes the claim that we would become like manufactured products with no rights or dignity. Through this ethical approach, these scholars point out that the designing of babies through genetic enhancement is dangerous, wrong, and immoral.

Not only would genetic enhancement take away from human dignity and even humanity itself, but many philosophers and sociologists also claim that it will become a “vain pursuit of perfection,” causing a greater gap in society between the “haves” and “have-nots,” or rather the “ideal” and “non-ideal” humans (Annas). Those that are wealthy enough to afford it will remain at the top of the social scale and will continue to rise as their children are at an advantage over everyone else. The poor, on the other hand, will not be able to afford the enhancements, so their children will remain on the bottom of the social scale as others rise up. The social gap will expand, and those that cannot afford it will suffer through poverty and a lack of opportunity. There is always the frightening possibility of defects and side effects. This fear is evident in the case of the mouse that was “successfully” engineered to have a better memory. This alteration, however, was linked to a gene that also caused the mouse to develop much higher pain sensitivity (Simmons). The thought of this type of mistake happening with humans is terrifying, and it, along with the other points, provides a strong case against the technology.

Scholarly Research on Public Opinion

While the views and opinions of the scholars are important, they are not the ones that will truly be making the decisions regarding the use of the technology. Rather, the decisions will be in the hands of the general public. Public opinion is most important in almost all cases of change or social reform. Studies have been conducted to study how the public would act when presented with the opportunity to “design” future children. Gerhard Meisenberg conducted a survey and an analysis of various American medical students in a Caribbean medical school about their views on the use of genetic engineering. The students were interviewed to observe their levels of support because they are well educated on the subject, and many others do not know enough about how genetic enhancement works to have a reliable and educated opinion (Meisenberg 150). The results show that the majority of respondents are supportive of the process of gene therapy for disease prevention and health purposes, but most are very against the use of enhancement to design children. They are actually against it for reasons of morality rather than more rationally comparing the potential benefits and consequences. If future physicians that are well educated on the technology are basing their opinions on morality, then there is a good chance that it will be the opinion of a majority of people. A strong correlation was evident between religious affiliation and opposition of the technology—those that considered themselves more religious, specifically Christians and Muslims, were more likely to oppose the technology (Meisenberg 149). This is yet another example of how personal views on what is right can have a great impact on the decisions that are made. Overall, Meisenberg’s work is an interesting analysis of public opinions and ideas; it does not, however, look into different social changes and possibilities that can alter these widespread views of moral opposition. This is where my research will be focused.

My Experiment

In order to analyze my hypothesis that, if unregulated, genetic engineering will eventually develop and become widespread, I distributed a survey to a sample of various undergraduate students. Through the survey, I analyzed the opinions of 133 students, 101 of which currently attend UNC, about their views and opinions on genetic engineering.

I began by analyzing their opinions on the genetic engineering of plants and animals and the use of the technology in general. Overall, 53% of respondents stated that they agree with the use of genetic experimentation to find ways to produce better and healthier crops and livestock. I also inquired whether they would eat a fruit or vegetable that had been genetically engineered and whether they would consume the dairy products of a cow that had been modified to produce healthier milk. The support was relatively high, with 74% and 68%, respectively. A majority of the sample seems to be either supportive or indifferent to the use of genetic modifications on plants and animals, but their opinions vary greatly when humans become involved.

I then proceeded to ask them how likely they would be to genetically engineer their children for each of the following characteristics: gender; eye color and hair color; height, strength, and athletic ability; intelligence or IQ; emotional characteristics; and interests and hobbies.

But first, it was important to determine whether they would even desire certain traits in their children. Of the 124 students that plan to have children, 45% envision or hope for a certain gender, 45% for a certain set of physical characteristics, and 93% for a certain level of intelligence and mental characteristics. Ninety-three percent also said that they envision doing sports and activities with their children. The majority of my sample hopes for certain traits in their children, but to what extent would they go to achieve this?

The survey provided seven options, ranging from very unlikely (1) to very likely (7), with undecided in the middle (4). When asked about using the new technology, the average response was below 3 for every option, and the majority responded with “Very Unlikely.” The most supported characteristics to be modified were intelligence (2.40) and height, strength, and athletic ability (2.08), but even these were fairly low. You can see here that we become a lot more uncomfortable with biotechnology when it involves human beings.

Even with this strong opposition, however, social factors could serve to alter people’s opinions. To test this, I presented my subjects with a new circumstance—I told them to suppose that a number of their child’s classmates and friends were going to be genetically engineered to be more intelligent, more athletic, and better looking. I then asked them the same set of questions from the previous section. While a good portion of responses remained as “Very Unlikely,” there was a notable shift in the average response, most apparent in the intelligence and athletic ability sections. These categories shifted towards the more likely side of the spectrum by 63% and 69%, respectively. Although they did not become “very likely” to use the technology, there is evidence that they would definitely think twice about it. Some subjects claimed that they are “totally against genetic engineering” because “it is unnatural,” and they want their children to be “how they are meant to be.” Others, however, make interesting claims. One subject stated, “Even though I don’t think it is right to mess with nature, being bullied is not right either.” Another said that she “would never want [her] children to fall behind their peers because of their less superior genetics.” The shift in opinion provides evidence to predict that if some people begin to engineer their children without government regulation, the reluctant opponents may change their opinions in an attempt to “keep up.” This will create a positive feedback loop, increasing the rate of human genetic engineering.

Social and Foreign Pressures to Pursue Genetic Enhancement

If the technology is soon developed and does begin to spread, it seems that it will become a lot more common than we can imagine—almost routine, even. The pressure for pregnant mothers to use new genetic screenings to test for disease is already making situations difficult for many, and that pressure can only grow. When words such as “control,” “choice,” and “reassurance” are used, “women feel unable to refuse tests and screening, [particularly when] presented as routine” (Quintavalle 71). If it does become this “routine,” parents may lose all choice in the matter. Either engineer your children, or have them suffer on the lower end of the social spectrum.

Scholar Eric Swedin explains another important and relevant concern—the eugenics race with China. He warns that as China moves forward with genetic research, we may be pulled in with them. It will become like the nuclear arms race of the 20th century—if China begins to engineer their children to be superior, we will feel the need to keep up; this is a very real possibility. China currently spends about 1.3% of its GDP on genetic and genomics research. This amounts to approximately $1.4 trillion in US dollars (Swedin). On top of this extensive research program, the Chinese seem to have very different bioethical views. This is evident through the Maternal and Infant Health Law, which was passed in 1995. The purpose of this law was to prevent the births of children with genetic diseases. It requires that doctors advise parents with genetic diseases “to not marry or to consider sterilization.” It also requires prenatal screening for all pregnancies, and if genetic defects are found, abortion is advised (Swedin). There is a strong debate in America over whether abortions should even be legal, and this law in China requires doctors to advise it. This makes it clear that the Chinese have very different views than Americans when it comes to ethical issues of maternal health and childbirth. It also indicates that the Chinese would most likely not see any issues with the genetic engineering of children. Therefore, with the extensive genetic research and different ethical views, there seems to be a great possibility that China will pursue human genetic engineering. Swedin uses this information to predict possible future developments:

Around the world, parents seeking the best opportunities for their children may want to buy biotechnology that gives their children an edge, and we will see the birth of specialized human beings. Sending them to the right school or arranging for specialized care and training will be supplanted by genetic engineering which will allow parents to give their children ever more advantages. Moral qualms will be brushed aside, and keeping up with the Chinese will be seen as a patriotic duty (Swedin).

Genetically engineered Chinese children will become superior individuals, and if it becomes a common practice in society, China will become superior as a nation. Americans may be morally opposed to the technology, but if it becomes a “patriotic duty” to keep up with China and preserve the strength of the nation, it seems that opinions will change (Swedin).

The Importance of Regulation

Veronica English and Ann Sommerville explain that with the potential pressures of doctors, other Americans, and foreign developments, “care needs to be taken to ensure that pressure is not exerted on individuals to conform automatically” (14). A large part of this “care” needs to depend on government regulation. If the American public is opposed to the idea of “designer babies,” they need to understand the potential developments of the near future. As of now, the United States has no official legislation to regulate genetic experimentation on human beings. Great Britain has established the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to control it, and other nations have established similar systems, but the United States remains without strict regulation. It has been a difficult area for policy makers over the past decade because there is “conflicting ethical, scientific, and policy advice,” and it “can affect future generations and the entire trajectory of human evolution.” Currently, there are a few small organizations, such as the Recombinant DNA Advisory Council, but they only have the power to regulate publically funded experimentation. Many research groups in the field are privately funded, so the council has no power over them. The FDA is gaining some power and looking into the procedures of private research, but that alone is not enough for strong regulation (Schichor, Simonet, and Canano). The attempts at regulation have clearly been made, but progress has been lacking.

There is also the issue of regulating the technology in other nations. As stated earlier, China seems to be on track to develop successful techniques of human genetic engineering. If this happens, the United States government will be faced with a difficult dilemma. They may realize that a majority of Americans are widely opposed to the genetic technology, but they may also have no choice in the matter. Therefore, I propose that the only way to prevent the development of human genetic engineering in America is to create a system of international regulation. Swedin states, “Such new technologies can only be controlled when all nations capable of using these technologies agree to do so. In the absence of broad agreement, technologies will be developed as a matter of international competition” (Swedin). This is not just a domestic issue. In order to regulate genetic engineering domestically, all nations with the technological potential must cooperate. W. French Anderson, the nation’s leading gene therapy researcher, stated, “Genetic enhancement is going to happen. Congress is not going to pass a law keeping you from curing baldness” (Andrews 101). With recent developments, it seems that he may be right. Genetic enhancement may actually happen. With such strong ethical opposition, Americans can push for regulation. They must understand that this is no longer just a technological, futuristic dream. It is real and developing before our eyes. We may not be able to prevent human genetic enhancement completely, but we can prevent it from becoming out of control.

Implications and Conclusion

So what does this mean for society? If genetic engineering is allowed in human children, how will it affect the way we live? Eric Swedin provides a vision of the possibilities of the future of designer babies: “One can easily imagine in 50 to 100 years the popularity of 400-pound football linebackers, workers with superior strength or stamina, workers who excel in mathematics, or workers whose bones and organs can better withstand the effects of zero gravity for functioning in outer space.” According to Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, this would degrade all sense of achievement. He states, “If bioengineering made the myth of the ‘self-made man’ come true, it would be difficult to view our talents as gifts for which we are indebted rather than achievements for which we are responsible.” In his analysis of Sandel’s views, New York Times writer William Saletan makes the claim that we would gain “unprecedented power to redefine the good” but that we can never achieve perfection. “We might create a world of perfect SATs, ERA’s and CEO’s. But it would never be a perfect world, because the point of perfection is that its definition doesn’t bend to our will.” Right now, many people share the view that genetic engineering is immoral and unethical; this is the “norm.” As social changes impact our decision making, this “norm” may shift towards the routine use of genetic engineering. In reference to the movie “Chariots of Fire,” in which a runner was disqualified from the 1924 Olympic Games for having a coach, “Once gene therapy becomes routine, the case against genetic engineering will sound as quaint as the case against running coaches.” On this topic, Saletan said, “Today, nobody blinks at running coaches. The standpoint from which people used to find them unseemly is gone.” Saletan predicts that the technology may soon become the “norm,” and, one day, it may sound as strange to people as the case against running coaches sounds to us. If we do not take the proper steps of regulation, we will be allowing this change to occur.

But if you are one of the opponents, remember the following. You define the “norm.” You have the power to push for government regulations and make individual decisions regarding biotechnology. You have the power to prevent this technology from becoming widespread. Saletan sums it all up pretty well: “Strengthen your body, but respect it. Challenge your child, but love her. Celebrate nature. Don’t try to control everything.”



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Michael Catalano