Build-A-Baby Workshop: Ethics of designer babies

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By Song My Hoang

On April 8, 2014, in Sorum House, Joni-Rae Partridge ’17, a current chemistry major, facilitated a discussion entitled, “The Ethics of Designer Babies.”

The event was part of the Dinner and Discussion around Diversity, which is sponsored by the Campus Protestant Ministry.

The Campus Protestant Ministry has a leadership group of 22 students and is sponsored by over 18 Protestant churches and organizations, as well as other individuals.

The mission of the Campus Protestant Ministry is to maintain a Protestant identity while contributing to an interfaith presence, strengthen campus and community relations, reflect on experiences to give life meaning and support the campus community.

Dinner and Discussion around Difference was initiated by Reverend Viki Brooks and has become a student-facilitated dialogue focusing on the search for meaning, authenticity and purpose.

Partridge stated that the purpose of these discussions is to explore the diversity that exists throughout life. She commented, “We want to raise awareness in the community that diversity can come in many forms. Diversity is not just about ethnicity, but it also includes beliefs.”

Student facilitators choose topics that they can relate to. The discussions provide a safe space for students to listen to other opinions and further understand themselves.

Previous Dinner and Discussion around Diversity topics have included a discussion on vegetarianism and the importance of storytelling in different faiths.

“A lot of students have a misconception about these discussions. They think it solely revolves around religion. However, it has morphed over time and we are open to any topics,” Partridge added.

Partridge wanted to discuss the ethics of designer babies because she came across the topic when she searched about treatments for her genetic medical condition.

“I was curious that there could be a technology that can possibly remove a defected gene. I wondered if my parents had the choice, would they have gone through with this treatment,” Partridge said.

The increasing development of genetic technology can potentially give parents the option of genetically modifying their unborn children to eliminate diseases or even modify their desirable traits.

Scientists need to replace faulty sections of DNA with healthy DNA in human embryos.

The debate over the idea of designer babies has been ongoing.  This genetic alteration opens a whole new set of possibilities that result in the so-called “designer babies.”

Partridge began the talk by passing a document of quotes regarding the topic of genetically engineered children.

There were different perspectives on this type of genetic alternation.

Mike Steere from CNN stated, “Bring your partner, grab a seat, pick up your baby catalog and start choosing. Will you go for the brown hair or blond? Would you prefer tall or short? Funny or clever?”

“Why is it obvious that we should treat the illness after the child is born, but not prevent the illness beforehand,” commented Paul Waldman from The American Prospect.

Philosopher at the University of Albany Bonnie Steinback stated, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the attempt to make our children smarter or kinder. If we did think that was wrong, we should give up parenting and put them out on the street.”

An attendee of the discussion stated that this advanced fertility technology evokes fears present in the movie Gattaca and Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. Students had a fear of eugenics because it predisposes superiority to those who can access it, which would be affluent couples.

The idea of selecting traits based on a catalog induced anxiety in the audience. The designing aspect seemed to promote the objectification of babies as commodities.

Students were afraid that this ability could give parents the option of determining their children’s identities and not allowing their children to develop their own personalities.

Another attendee brought up the fact that illness is a motivator for a parent’s choice. If the technology were available, this would save great medical expenses.

The major problem with using genetic engineering to cure illnesses is the ambiguity of the term “illness.”

Partridge brought up an article she read about how people in the deaf community have a strong cultural bond and would prefer that their children were deaf. She asked, “Can you say that a deaf human being is impaired? What is health? What is the best way of living a life? It all comes down to cultural relativism.”

Attendees had trouble defining the extent of illness that could be acceptable for genetic alteration.

An attendee suggested that an illness that potentially causes the child intense pain should be treated with the genetic technology. However, another individual questioned the vagueness of the concept of pain because it could refer to physical or mental pain.

Another individual commented, “An illness should be eliminated through this method if it requires constant and intensive medical treatment.”

“Perhaps our capability medically has exceeded our thoughtfulness ethically,” Reverend Viki Brooks added.

Partridge concluded, “I gained a sense of clarity after seeing different student perspectives about designer babies.”

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