“Designer Babies”: a catalogue of ethical dilemmas

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Words: Elohor Efakpokire (she/her)

Prior to advancements in genetic engineering, the “designer baby” was merely an ominous threat in dystopian science fiction novels. 

Emerging as potential real world possibilities, designer babies are becoming increasingly significant within bioethical debate. The question of whether we could be sleepwalking into this reality lingers, as do questions about the significant ethical dilemmas that arise as a result. 

Firstly,  what is a  “designer baby” ?

This term refers to an embryo in which the genetic make-up has been altered or manipulated. Primarily, this is done to edit or eliminate genes associated with disease, using a bio tool called CRISPR. This technology enables the modification of genetic material at a faster, more affordable and more efficient rate than ever before. CRISPR could help us find solutions to debilitating diseases, allowing us to evade such pathologies and providing many of us with a chance to live a healthier life. With this thought in mind, many might be in support of using CRISPR in this way. For example, sickle cell anaemia affects around 20 million people worldwide and such pioneering research would be life changing. 

However, the possibilities of CRISPR and designer babies don’t end there. With CRISPR, it also becomes possible to edit genes related to traits such as eye colour, skin colour, intelligence, and even specific talents like athletic or musical ability. Using such a powerful tool, that is relatively easier and cheaper to use, the possibilities of what we can do are endless. It has the potential to create a catalogue of designer babies, in which prospective parents can hand pluck their desired traits. Building a baby from the petri dish up.  

Although most countries have not yet legislated genetic modification in human beings for reproductive purposes, many scientists and ethicists are concerned with the moral implications of this kind of reproductive technology, especially regarding its potential use to satisfy people’s vanity. It becomes more complicated when considering the use of the gene editing tool for cosmetic purposes or to enhance ability. This leaves us to pose the question:

‘Should we create a world in which we reject imperfect people ?’  

Some may argue, this world already exists to some extent. Millions of pregnant people undergo genetic screening to test for disorders in order to ensure that their children have the best quality of life. In 2018, He Jiankui, a chinese scientist utilised CRISPR technology to immunise baby twins from the HIV virus. Breaking the legal restrictions, he was subsequently imprisoned for three years, and the story lives on as a cautionary tale for the use of gene editing specifically for disease, even with the intent of improving quality of life.Once we open the floodgates of genetic modification for superficial characteristics we pose a risk of choosing traits which are favoured over others based on  social biases or preferences, exacerbating inequalities or or new forms of discrimination based on genetic make up. 

Australian philosopher Julian Savulescu argues in favour of a certain type of principle that would guide our choices surrounding designer babies – what he calls the principle of ‘procreative beneficence’. He suggests that we have a moral obligation to produce the best children, by testing for and genetically selecting non-disease genes, even if this maintains or increases social inequality. Non-disease states refer to factors such as intelligence.

Moreover, he argues couples are justified in using this information in reproductive decision making. Although Savulescu argues that this approach differs from eugenics,  I perceive it as heading down a comparable slippery slope, because it implies that some are superior to others. By suggesting that some individuals are intellectually or even physiologically superior, it creates an avenue to  increase and exacerbate existing social inequalities. If we share the notion that “all people are created equal”, technology like CRISPR could undermine that very value. 

While I don’t consider myself a technophobe, nor am I opposed to genetic enhancements, what does concern me is that our unbridled ambitions and biases, in an attempt to prosper, may reduce our ability to think critically about the ethical dangers of non-disease related genetic enhancements.  As the world becomes more technologically advanced, we have a responsibility to ensure that our morals and values follow suit.


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