A big step toward 'designer babies' – and big questions

Researchers have achieved the first mapping of a fetus's DNA. The breakthrough opens the potential to choose a child's characteristics. Such power, however, should also force questions about 'playing God.'

Smithsonian/AP Photo
This image shows an artist’s depiction of the first major exhibit being developed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to explore the human genome.

A stunning breakthrough in biotechnology was announced this week that brings humanity closer to an Orwellian prospect: parents being able to choose the characteristics of an unborn child.

For the first time, scientists have mapped the DNA of a fetus. They did so by using specimens from a pregnant woman and the father. The procedure may make it easier someday to prenatally change genes seen as causing diseases or, more startling, pick a child’s attributes such as eye color or even intelligence.

This achievement by researchers at the University of Washington raises anew many legal, ethical, and moral concerns about the potential for “designer babies.” Yet at a deeper level, such advances in the human mastery of the reproductive process also stir up questions about what is “natural” – or rather, whether “natural selection” will, or should, become “deliberate selection.”

The power to alter a child’s genetic makeup should not be regarded as simply an exercise in manipulating matter for a determined end. Rather it must also force fresh thinking about the principles that drive human behavior, such as the love that motivates a parent to be a parent or the truth about life’s eternal nature that demands more than a desire for physical perfection in a child.

The technique of altering a fetus’s DNA could simply push parents to treat children as a commodity, like a perfect Build-A-Bear, rather than treat them as a gift – one that commands unceasing love regardless of how a child turns out. But faced with the prospect of wielding immense control over a child’s future, parents could also be humbled at the responsibility, even frightened at having to make so many choices that are now beyond the power of humans.

This is why critics call these techniques “playing God.” Or as bioethicist Leon Kass has put it: “It’s an ancient tension between, on the one hand, wanting to savor the world as it is and, on the other hand, wanting to improve on the world as given. There is a danger that the freedom to transform everything embraces the freedom to transform our own nature and even to destroy that very freedom itself.”

Each new biotech advance in reproduction could help enlighten humans about their grander life purpose. When famed biologist J. Craig Venter became the first person to discover the sequence of the human genome in 2000, he said his work was inspired by the knowledge that “the human spirit is at least as important as our physiology.”

“We’re clearly much, much more than the sum total of our genes, just as our society is greater than the sum total of each of us,” he stated.

The science of DNA is moving far faster than the human capacity to fully grasp its meaning. Even the researchers of this latest technique acknowledge in their paper that “our capacity to generate data is outstripping our ability to interpret it.”

Such research is a double-edged sword. There is valid concern about the potential for abuse. But it can also be a window into higher concepts of humanity.

Before this kind of scientific work gets too far ahead, parallel research is needed in the ethics and morality of such advances. Tellingly, that desire for understanding can’t be found in any gene.

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