In November of 2018, we saw the first “designer” babies being born in China after the scientist in charge used CRISPR, a novel gene-editing tool, to alter the embryos to rid the twins of a potential HIV-positive diagnosis. The success of the girls’ births was met with a lot of discussion regarding what this could mean for the future. It catalyzed a horde of moral and ethical questions regarding whether or not people should be allowed to genetically modify their children for health-unrelated purposes, which can be considered cosmetic genetic engineering. To be clear, I will try to introduce a different perspective into the now ethics-related conversation. I believe that it is met with more opposition than it warrants, because now humans are raising the question of what is “natural.”
The idea of cosmetic genetic engineering seems to be met with lots of negative responses, but the truth of the matter is that like cosmetic surgery, it will probably be an active part of our future. The folks over at Explaining the Future agree that commercial selection of certain traits “may well become … [available] … in the future”, as there are already companies like The Fertility Institute that offer parents the “gender selection program.” Unfortunately, we live in a fickle society in which we want the best of things: intelligence, attractiveness and athleticism. And I have no doubts that this mindset will carry on to further generations — to what degree can be debated, but it has entered our society and will certainly not leave for a long, long time. This is why extreme things like “enhancements” via editing the human genome can be considered a viable option for people in the future.
Now that we have established it is a part of the future, we have to address what the idea of “designer babies” could mean for the future and why people are against it now. The questions raised here are whether people should meddle with nature or change what they are born with, and more importantly, if parents have the right to change their children permanently. However, suppose a designer child is born and they are told that they have been genetically modified to have blue eyes or lighter skin; the child could reminisce all they want on what they could have looked like “naturally,” but what does it matter? The child knows nothing else. It’s like when children are asked about whether they agree with abortion or not and people against it try to bring up the fact that if their parents aborted them, they would not be here today. That is true, but that is also the point — they wouldn’t know because they wouldn’t be here.
Additionally, is sticking to what one is born with considered naturally human? Are the twins I mentioned in the beginning of the article not human anymore since they have been genetically modified? Are any future babies treated for diseases at the embryonic stage crossing the line of human or “natural”? Why are enhancements considered to be “unnatural,” when disease modifications utilize the same technologies? The answer to my last question lies in what people consider to be socially acceptable, and those are merely social constructs. As any sociology class will tell you, social constructs are temporary; what is considered to be too extreme now could very well be considered normal in the future. According to the folks at the National Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, this “lack of enthusiasm is due to hesitation concerning innovation … a common phenomenon throughout history.”
Cosmetic genetic engineering is regarded today as pushing a moral line imposed by the society that punishes individuals for not having enough of a certain attribute. Evolutionarily speaking, new genes would be introduced into the human population and propagated down the generational line, but who is to say that this is unthinkable or even wrong? Who are we to say that this is not natural or that we should stick to what we are born with? Humans are constantly changing, and cosmetic genetic engineering could prove to be the next step in terms of our evolution.
Lavanya Sambaraju is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.