The Atlantic ran an anti-genetic enhancement article this month called The Case Against Perfection. Written by Michael J. Sandel, a member of the notorious President’s Council on Bioethics, the article is cogent and well-argued.
Essentially Sandel believes that embryonic or hereditary genetic enhancements would remove the ‘giftedness’ of every child – in other words, the fact that the traits of a child would no longer be left to ‘chance’ would cause a number of ethical and societal problems. These could include a deterioration in parenting, as parents might expect their children to succeed in particular areas instead of accepting their unique characters, and also the explicit creation of a new class of humans which could damage the solidarity among all humans, and more conventionally, in insurance markets (of course this could happen with genetic screening as well). The fact that this new eugenics would come without coercion does not, in his opinion, remove the potential danger to parents and children.
While reading the article, I unusually found myself agreeing with Sandel, as I’m normally a proponent of genetic enhancement. Most of the arguments I’ve heard against it are of the ‘who needs bigger muscles/taller children’ variety, which I actually agree with – I’m not sure I see the point of these things. However, I hadn’t heard the ‘giftedness’ argument before, which was initially appealing to me but has left me a little uncomfortable.
My problem with genetic enhancement supposedly removing the giftedness of children is mainly in the way that it abstracts the issue entirely. Surely we should be looking at the concrete benefits that genetic enhancement might give children, not just the fact that parents will know about them? How would improved vision and a better heart change the attitudes of parents towards their child? Sandel uses the examples of height and muscle improvement when he talks about the problems of genetic enhancement, which are understandably fraught with complications – but these shouldn’t extend to all variations of genetic enhancement.
Also, Sandel is noticeably quiet about the potential use of genetic engineering to correct diseases such as Parkinson’s. I find it difficult to believe that he would argue against genetic ‘corrections’ unless he believes that such debilitating diseases are also a part of the giftedness of a child, thus if we do use genetic engineering to correct diseases but we don’t use it to ‘enhance’ people, exactly where do we draw the line? What’s the extent that people are prepared to accept in the name of “our appreciation that life is a gift”? (his words).
I understand that my position is pretty vulnerable, given that if we allow genetic enhancements, people will use it to design taller and stronger children whether I like it or not. My only answer (and a weak one it is) would be to raise the bar on genetic enhancements extremely high and only allow those that would not predispose the child to any particular path; hence, improved eyesight and increased memory is useful for anything a person might care to do, but stronger legs clearly suggests that you are at least implicitly expected to make good use of them in some physical activity. I do agree that there are serious issues concerning genetic enhancement and that we should move very slowly with it, but I just don’t see that its removing the ‘giftedness’ of children is a strong argument against banning the whole thing.