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February 13, 2009

Designer Babies? Yeah, Okay.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a bit concerned about the reaction she got after posting this Wall Street Journal article about a fertility clinic that says it will soon be able to screen for physical traits pre-implantation.

They're not just talking about about diseases and disorders anymore, but selection for things like eye color, height, athleticism, and intelligence. Even if this clinic's claims are untrue (and there is some conjecture that they've gotten ahead of themselves) there is every reason to believe that it will be possible to do this at some point in the near future.

As I said, K-Lo is not happy about it:

Well, here's a sign of the times: I've been surprised by the number of e-mails I've received today from people who read that WSJ article on cosmetic genetics and responded to it by asking, "So what"? Basically: If my kid might not have a disease because of some genetic work, bring it on. The cosmetic stuff might be a little creepy, but it's not like you're going to stop it. Eugenics? Limits? Human Dignity? Our inability to even rouse the energy to raise questions is more than a little chilling.

First, "bring it on" is exactly right. If parents have it within their means to free their child from a genetic disorder, I'd be furious if they did not. That doesn't mean that individuals who suffer from genetic disorders cannot have meaningful lives. It just means that if I had my druthers, no one would have to face the challenges they face. Certainly, if I were presented with two options: Child A, with a genetic illness; or Child B, disease-free, I know which way I would go without hesitation.

Second, I confess that I have trouble seeing why cosmetic genetics is "a little creepy." You cut your child's hair and fingernails, don't you? Why isn't that considered an affront to his or her personal integrity? I'll tell you, it's because humans have been making that particular cosmetic change for centuries. Also, the change isn't even skin deep.

But that's not where it stops. We almost routinely exchange blood and organs -- sometimes even for artificial substitutes! -- without considering the alteration an assault on personal integrity. People are wandering around out there with other people's guts in them! And it's okay, justified perhaps because such things are necessary to improve a person's quality of life. Even where surgical augmentation is not medically necessary (*cough*boobies*cough*), objections to the procedure are based on the vanity of the patient, not some affront to innate personal integrity.

What is it about K-Lo's "human dignity" that requires us to roll the dice when we chose to have a child? I suspect that part of the objection isn't directed at the innocent child whose human dignity has been compromised, but rather at the vain parents. And that's the true objection to cosmetic genetics (similar to the objection to cosmetic surgery): people who would be so vain as to want and so vulgar as to actually get their perfect "designer baby."

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 09:49 AM

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