COMMENTARY | The Food and Drug Administration has considered, but rendered no decisions, on the merits and drawbacks of “three-parent babies,” the new lingo for embryos modified to place the nuclear DNA of the biological mother and father into the mitochondrial “shell” of a healthy donor. The procedure is intended only to eradicate diseases of the mitochondria, and the nuclear DNA of the baby is still from the biological mother and father. According to CNN, however, the procedure has both laymen and some medical ethicists worried about the possibility of “designer babies” or “super babies” being created using the same basic methods.
As the technology improves and proliferates to more medical clinics, will parents try to gain a competitive edge for their offspring by having their DNA tweaked, engineered, or augmented using the help of some donor DNA? To many opposed to the prospect of “designer” babies, the result would be similar to the 1997 film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, in which society had evolved tiered strata based on genetic engineering. Only those who were genetically engineered to be free from any possible disease, defect, abnormality, or tendency toward shortness, fatness, or other sub-optimal condition were allowed to hold good jobs. Those who were not genetically engineered? They found work as menial laborers.
The FDA, and the wider powers of government, must weigh the potential for disease prevention and eradication against the likelihood of unethical genetic manipulation by the wealthy.
Though some supporters of the “three-baby” procedure argue that the situation is not an ethical “slippery slope,” I heartily disagree, though that does not mean I am completely against the procedure itself. I believe that certain conditions should be allowed genetic treatment. But what about others? Where is the line between a truly debilitating condition that should, if possible, be neutralized using genetic engineering at the in-vitro stage, and a medical condition that can be handled with conventional treatments?
The debate will cause untold agony. How could anyone subject youth to various diseases or conditions that could be neutralized before birth? On the other hand, how could anyone justify spending many thousands of dollars to genetically modify one embryo of a wealthy couple while so many live in abject poverty? Further, would it be fair for the wealthy, who have the means to pay for the treatment of medical conditions, to be able to eradicate those conditions at the embryonic stage with an up-front, lump-sum payment? Only the wealthy can afford the up-front price tag of genetic disease neutralization, but the poor will still bear the long-term sticker shock of having to pay for medicine and treatment for decades…in the end likely paying just as much, if not more, than the wealthy.
And what about conditions that are not true diseases but also lead to lower quality of life? And genetic diseases that have relatively little effect on quality of life in most instances? Which ones get treatment? I have red-green colorblindness, which has little impact on my life. Were I rich, would it be ethical for me to remove this genetic defect from my DNA, knowing it was relatively harmless but wanting to provide my offspring with every possible advantage? I am also short. Would it be ethical for me to pay to have a geneticist guarantee that implanted genes would help my son or daughter reach above-average height, knowing how much discrimination short people, particularly short men, receive throughout their lives?
It’s hard to prevent genetic treatments from extending to conditions that some would consider trivial. Sure, we all want to end mitochondrial disorders, cancer, heart conditions. But what about treatable conditions like asthma? Genetic quirks like colorblindness? Genetic disadvantages like shortness? Who could tell a parent that their genes would provide their offspring with disadvantages…but not enough disadvantages, or the right disadvantages, to allow a cure-all procedure? Force their child to have to struggle through life with asthma, allergies, nearsightedness, and shortness while the child who would have had _____________ condition had it neutralized pre-birth and is now genetically perfect?
So, what commonsense regulations could possibly be put on “three-baby” procedures? We typically want to avoid big government, but would any less oversight work at all? Even with extreme oversight it is virtually guaranteed that many wealthy couples would find loopholes and create designer babies anyway. Critics of big government oversight could argue that it would be irrelevant because wealthy parents already do create designer children through existing means: Better nutrition, expensive conventional treatments, expensive schools and tutors, and a myriad of available cosmetic tweaks ranging from braces to acne medication to cosmetic and laser-eye surgery.
I’m going to have to side with big government on this issue, for nothing less has little hope of preventing the slide into eugenics and genetic classism. It’s a brave new world, but we shouldn’t let the rich be allowed to control the roll of the genetic dice.