If you've opened a newspaper or magazine recently, you've probably
seen splashy ads for Botox, as part of a new $50 million direct-to-consumer
marketing campaign to promote cosmetic injections of botulism
The Botox campaign follows other recent news reports about
the use of human growth hormones for children who are perfectly
healthy, but just happen to be short. In June an advisory committee
to the Food and Drug Administration recommended, at the request
of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, that the agency approve this
These are not the only recent stories about high-tech human
"enhancements." The year began with headlines of an
alien-chasing sect that claimed to have created a cloned baby.
After that story, newspapers turned to the 50th anniversary
of the discovery of DNA's structure. That coverage venerated
scientists as celebrities and visionaries, and made exaggerated
promises about the wondrous future benefits of biomedical research.
But what if all these promises and visions of more perfect
humans fall short of their fantasy-inspiring expectations? Unfortunately,
there is little evidence of that kind of healthy skepticism
and line of inquiry among most science reporters.
One problem with this sort of reporting is that it overlooks
potential pitfalls of the new genetic technologies. Just as
bad, it implies that procedures opposed by the vast majority
of Americans, such as producing a cloned child, are being developed
and promoted only by alien love cults, where in contrast, respectable
scientists confine themselves to high-minded work that has no
other purpose or motivation than curing illness.
But the truth is, some respected and lauded scientists are
making far-ranging and disturbing pronouncements about engineering
more perfect humans.
The foremost example is Nobel laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer
of DNA, who is also an outspoken proponent of using genetic
engineering to "redesign" future children and "improve"
the human species. During the recent "DNA at 50" celebrations,
The London Times reports, Watson repeated some of the
ideas he has voiced many times before: "If you really are
stupid, I would call that a disease.... So I'd like to get rid
of that.... Those parents who enhance their children, then their
children are going to be the ones who dominate the world....
People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty.
I think it would be great."
Watson is not alone in his views. A network of academics and
other advocates who explicitly look forward to this future will
gather June 27 to 29 for the "Transvision U.S.A. 2003"
conference at Yale University. There, they will espouse how
humans can, with the assistance of new technologies, breed better.
Their holy grail, so to speak, is Inheritable Genetic Modification
(IGM), in which genes are altered in early embryos in such a
way that the changes are expressed in the child who develops
and passed on to all of that child's descendants. One of the
conference's opening speakers is Greg Pence, a philosopher from
the University of Alabama, who writes in his book Who's Afraid
of Human Cloning?, "Many people love their retrievers
and their sunny dispositions around children and adults. Could
people be chosen in the same way? Would it be so terrible to
allow parents to at least aim for a certain type, in the same
way that great breeders... try to match a breed of dog to the
needs of a family?"
Talk of breeding humans may remind readers of the eugenic practices
of the 20th century, which involved forcibly sterilizing thousands
of Americans classed as mentally impaired or criminally inclined,
in the service of "improving the gene pool." In recent
years, three states have issued formal apologies to the victims
of these programs. Of course, many people recall Nazi Germany's
obsession with eugenics, and later in the century American foreign
policy encouraged sterilizations of men and women in the Third
World as the best means to deal with population and poverty
What's different today is that the technical ability to "improve"
humanity's genes by high-tech methods is on the horizon, and
a new eugenics is emerging.
Advocates are quick to disavow the bluntly coercive eugenic
practices of the last century. The new eugenics, both proponents
and critics say, will rely on the competitiveness of the market.
Parents will be free to exercise consumer choice in the selection
of their future children's genes -- or at least those who can
afford these procedures will be free to do so.
It requires little imagination to see the economic and social
outcomes of generations of the wealthy genetically enhancing
their children, while most of us are left in the dust as mere
Naturals. Even if these "improvements" have little
real impact -- which is quite possible since one's environment
has an enormous impact on development -- they will fundamentally
change how we function as a society. Will we still be able to
argue that all people are created equal if some have their very
One new twist that's particularly disturbing is that advocates
of this free-market eugenics are twisting the language of women's
rights to push their agenda.
James Hughes, the chair of the Transvision conference planning
committee, has argued in a scholarly article that "the
right to a custom-made child is merely the natural extension
of our current discourse of reproductive rights. I see no virtue
in the role of chance in conception, and great virtue is expanding
choice.... If women are allowed the 'reproductive right' or
'choice' to choose the father of their child, with his attendant
characteristics, then they should be allowed the right to choose
the characteristics from a catalog."
But clearly there's a huge difference between being pro-choice
and pro-designer babies.
As these proponents are working to make a post-human future
more palpable, current scientific developments are beginning
to push towards the limits that civil society must draw to prevent
this scenario. Each month brings new cloned animals. Scientists
have recently turned stem cells into eggs, and learned how to
target specific genes in human stem cells. These developments
can fuel beneficial medical research, but they are also key
to IGM and thus should be effectively regulated.
Fortunately, the cadre of explicit IGM advocates is relatively
small. But the strongest voices in the debate have so far been
those of the religious right and the biotechnology industry.
The former's concern is rooted in the destruction of embryos,
and the latter primarily focuses on allowing research to proceed
unhindered. Liberals and progressives must provide a third alternative.
Do we want a future of designed children and a new eugenics
driven by the biotech corporations and the free market? Applications
such as IGM and human reproductive cloning should be opposed
because they undermine fundamental norms of equality and will
have terrible social consequences. We already know how to effectively
and affordably improve the lives of humans around the globe:
clean water, food security, basic health care and education.
Manipulating the genes of future generations? We can take that
off the agenda.
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