Sunday, January 21, 2007

Maybe I LIKE My "Faulty" DNA

Have you ever seen the sci-fi movie, "Gattaca"? It's one of my favorites (as it is for many scientists, according to one poll I read). If you haven't seen the movie, it's about a time in the not so distant future where every baby is genetically screened before birth to determine their genetic content. Sort of like "eugenics", the doctors of that fictional future select out the "bad" genes that can lead to diseases and replace them with "good" genes that insure a child that is healthy. Furthermore, they can tailor the child's talents based on his or her genetic profile. The interview process for certain jobs involves little more than a genetic screen, and criminals are expected to have certain genetic codes as well. The protagonist in the movie hides the fact that he was born without genetic manipulation and uses a "genetically superior" identity to get a job as an astronaut, all the time afraid he could be found out. I highly recommend the movie.

One of my favorite scenes in Gattaca is where the protagonist and his girlfriend go to a piano concert, and the pianist is able to play elaborate pieces because he has six fingers on each hand – an illustration of "designer babies" genetically manipulated (or deformed), in this case to excel at a certain talent.

Well, thanks in part to us lab rats, for better or worse, the world of Gattaca is quickly becoming a reality. For many years now fertility clinics have had the ability, for about $15,000, to screen embryos for defective genetic codes which could result in serious conditions that could result in failed implantation or lead to serious health problems for the baby, a process called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. Understandable, I think. After spending your life savings to try for a baby using in vitro fertilization, you'd want to make sure the try was successful and that the resulting baby was healthy. But the ethical implications are obvious: it's a new form of eugenics. How far could it go? Right now we can detect genetic codes that predict high chances of heart disease, cancer, and a large number of physical and mental conditions. Are we to marginalize members of our society who have those conditions by saying they aren't valuable? For that matter, shall we just skip to the punch and create a "master race"? I'm short, fat, and have a heart condition. In the coming world of designer babies, would I still exist? Maybe. Maybe I would have looked like Brad Pitt and been able to run marathons. I'm pretty sure I could live with being a babe magnet, but would I really be "me"?

Now, in a serious test of science ethics, the opposite is happening. Instead of creating what many people would see as "the perfect child", some people WANT to select for physical deformities:

Consider if you and your spouse had dwarfism, were blind, or were both deaf. Would you want your child to have the same condition? Would you want to INSURE that they had the condition? According to that article, a poll of fertility clinics suggested that as many as 3% of clinics were using PGD to select embryos with conditions for parents that others would have screened out, though they didn't say what those conditions were or if the embryos had even developed and been born. Some critics call this "deliberate crippling of children." Is it fair to the child to be "handicapped" like their parents? What if the parents don't see it as a handicap, or even see the condition as superior to average people?

Is genetic manipulation of an embryo any different than surgically altering the child after birth? Stunting her growth to make her a dwarf, removing her cochleae to make her deaf, or cutting her optic nerves to make her blind? I wouldn't think society would tolerate these things, but I've been proven wrong. Consider the case of Ashley.

I wonder what people would do if I had a designer baby tailor-made to be just like me? Designing-in a heart condition, high chance of obesity, short stature, a hairy back, and a predilection for liking pizza and cola for breakfast? Sure, he wouldn't be Brad Pitt, but maybe he would be a great lab rat like his dear old dad.

So, what is your feeling on this? Should children be born "as-is", with all the potential health risks and defects? Should those defects be genetically erased so they could live with fewer health issues and fit in with society? Should we be able to insure the child is "like their parents", whatever genetic conditions that may require? And where do we draw the line on these things?

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