Designer babies for and against essay
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Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line?
Michael Williams gazes inwards and agonizes about the prospects of a proper public debate on such matters as genetic engineering.
I vividly remember attending my first University Union debate. I expected that reasons would be put forward for and against the motion, that seconders would evaluate, challenge and refine the arguments and that, in conclusion, the best argument would win. But I was appalled! It was more like a slanging match using sophisticated language and humour to score points. It was not a case of may the best argument win, but may the best entertainer win. The reason that I was so offended was that I believed controversy to be a form of cooperation, which was ultimately a way of arriving at truth, to paraphrase Auden.
Designer Babies belongs to a series of short books, sponsored by the Institute of Ideas, called Debating Matters which seek to expand the boundaries of public debate. The method is to ask contemporary experts to contribute short essays setting out a variety of viewpoints on burning issues of the day. In this particular book Veronica English of the BMA, Agnes Fletcher of the Disability Rights Commission, John Harris of the UK Human Genetics Commission, Josephine Quintavalle of the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy and others, set out their views. The strength of the book is that in very short space one finds an up to the minute discussion of all the main arguments. The language is also accessible to non-specialists. It will be extremely useful to the A level student and to anyone wanting a good foundation in the subject. But the shortcoming of this approach is that the essays stand alongside one another with little debate between them. Is this a device to make the reader come to his or her own conclusions after weighing up both sides, or does it raise the question as to the nature of public debate as such?
This question is highlighted for me in three of the essays. John Harris puts the progressive case for designer babies relying on consequentialist and human rights arguments. Agnes Fletcher calls for caution because the issue could undermine the rights of those with disabilities. Josephine Quintavalle puts the conservative argument, though this is stated in its weak form based on consequentialist arguments drawing attention to the risks involved in the processes. If she had argued for the stronger conservative case, which forbids all experimentation and manipulation of human embryos, then the three cornered fight would have been complete. It would then have been clear that public debate on this issue is a matter of the different fundamental stances taken by the participants. Having such different starting points public debate can only be a form of the one who shouts the loudest, or the one who holds the most power, winning the day. In these circumstances how can public debate ever fulfil my adolescent dream of a form of cooperation which arrives at the truth? This is a vital question for fundamental ethics. If public ethics is ever going to be more than simply stating your case based on your own presuppositions, then some more sophisticated ethical method must be practised.
Jürgen Habermas in his Discourse Ethics believes that he has found such a method. It is not one that aims at establishing truths for all time, it is more modest in that it claims to be dialogical in the here and now sense of finding a way forward in concrete historical debates. It takes the contradictory positions of the progressive and the conservative and offers a method of getting to the next step. The problem is that Habermas’ method does not convince me, and so all I am left with is a sophisticated version of emotivism.
I will certainly be using Designer Babies in my teaching, and I will be recommending it to others. I will also be sending off for the other books in the series, though the Institute of Ideas website (www. instituteofideas. com) was a disappointment. But I am still left struggling with the philosophical question of the nature of public debate. Is it a matter of disputation as in the courts or in parliament? Is it dialogical as in Plato’s Dialogues? Is it dialectical in either its Hegelian, Kierkegaardian or Marxist forms? These are pressing questions for our modern democracies when the rationalist linguistic approaches of a Habermas or a Hare cease to satisfy.
© MICHAEL WILLIAMS 2003
Michael Williams is the Vicar of Bolton Parish Church.
• Designer Babies, The Debating Matters Series, (Institute of Ideas/Hodder & Stoughton), 2001, £5.99 pb ISBN 0340848359.
The Embryo Project Encyclopedia
Recording and contextualizing the science of embryos, development, and reproduction.
Ethics of Designer Babies
A designer baby is a baby genetically engineered In vitro for specially selected traits, which can vary from lowered disease-risk to gender selection. Before the advent of genetic engineering and In vitro fertilization (IVF), designer babies were primarily a science fiction concept. However, the rapid advancement of technology before and after the turn of the twenty-first century makes designer babies an increasingly real possibility. As a result, designer babies have become an important topic in bioethical debates, and in 2004 the term “designer baby” even became an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Designer babies represent an area within embryology that has not yet become a practical reality, but nonetheless draws out ethical concerns about whether or not it will become necessary to implement limitations regarding designer babies in the future.
The prospect of engineering a child with specific traits is not far-fetched. IVF has become an increasingly common procedure to help couples with infertility problems conceive children, and the practice of IVF confers the ability to pre-select embryos before implantation. For example, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) allows viable embryos to be screened for various genetic traits, such as sex-linked diseases, before implanting them in the mother. Through PGD, physicians can select embryos that are not predisposed to certain genetic conditions. For this reason, PGD is commonly used in medicine when parents carry genes that place their children at risk for serious diseases such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. Present technological capabilities point to PGD as the likely method for selecting traits, since scientists have not established a reliable means of In vivo embryonic gene selection.
An early and well-known case of gender selection took place in 1996 when Monique and Scott Collins saw doctors at the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, for In vitro fertilization. The Collins’ intended to conceive a girl, as their first two children were boys and the couple wanted a daughter in the family. This was one of the first highly publicized instances of PGD in which the selection of the embryo was not performed to address a specific medical condition, but to fulfill the parents’ desire to create a more balanced family. The Collins’ decision to have a “designer baby” by choosing the sex of their child entered the public vernacular when they were featured in Time Magazine’s 1999 article «Designer Babies». Though the Collins’ case only involved choice of gender, it raised the issues of selection for other traits such as eye color, hair color, athleticism, or height that are not generally related to the health of the child.
Prior to the Collins’ decision to choose the sex of their child, The Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs released a statement in 1994 in support of using genetic selection as a means to prevent, cure or specific diseases, but that selection based on benign characteristics was not ethical. Some ethical concerns held by opponents of designer babies are related to the social implications of creating children with preferred traits. The social argument against designer babies is that if this technology becomes a realistic and accessible medical practice, then it would create a division between those that can afford the service and those that cannot. Therefore, the wealthy would be able to afford the selection of desirable traits in their offspring, while those of lower socioeconomic standing would not be able to access the same options. As a result, economic divisions may grow into genetic divisions, with social distinctions delineating enhanced individuals from unenhanced individuals. For example, the science-fiction film Gattaca explores this issue by depicting a world in which only genetically-modified individuals can engage in the upper echelon of society.
Other bioethicists have argued that parents have a right to prenatal autonomy, which grants them the right to decide the fate of their children. George Annas, chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights at Harvard University has offered support for the idea of PGD, and the designer babies that result, as a consumer product that should be open to the forces of market regulation. Additionally, other arguments in favor of designer baby technologies suggest that parents already possess a high degree of control over the outcome of their children’s lives in the form of environmental choices, and that this should absolve some of the ethical concerns facing genetic selection. For example, parents keen on establishing musical appreciation in their children may sign them up for music classes or take them to concerts on a regular basis. These choices affect the way a child matures, much like the decision to select certain genes predisposes a child to develop in ways that the parents have predetermined are desirable.
The increased ability to control and manipulate embryos presents many possibilities for improving the health of children through prenatal diagnosis, but these possibilities are coupled with potential social repercussions that could have negative consequences in the future. Ultimately, designer babies represent great potential in the field of medicine and scientific research, but there remain many ethical questions that need to be addressed.