Designer Babies: Something unknown to society at large, but will soon become a social norm. Parents all across the world worry about the potential outcome for their child, including physical and mental health, hair color, eye color, height, weight, etc. But, with the growing accessibility for scientists to mutate the genetic outcome of children in various ways, parents are taking full advantage. Because of this, in the near future we will see a large impact on how beauty and health is perceived at a societal level. This unhealthy obsession with image was thought to be at its peak in the modern era, but we will see more of it in the years to come.
Designer babies would not be fully identified in terms of what it means for society without first acknowledging its roots. The idea of manipulating the population and its genetics in order to bolster a more superior gene pool has its roots definitively within eugenics. In manipulating the decisions people make instead of their actual genes, the public believed that deviance could be bred out. Eugenics was birthed from Darwin’s theory of evolution in the fact that Darwin identified how if one trait is more useful, it will be passed on. With eugenics, mankind could take an active role in evolution, producing a population that they saw fit for life in their society.
This course of action was considered proper in the time that it manifested and currently there is much more support in the area of designer babies. The manipulation of genes for personality were identified and heavily disparaged on the creation of the first “test tube baby” in 1978. Today, however, many are starting to come around to the idea of altering a human’s character before they’re even born. With the success of genetic manipulation in regards to suppressing genetic disorders, many are wondering how far we can go from there.
In knowing this history that genetic manipulation has, it’s hard not to compare it with how we see the current climate of designer babies. Eugenics was greatly involved with race and how some races are not as worthy to pass on their traits as others are. This was generally directed towards African Americans due to many stigmas that still pervade today. The price tag on genetically manipulating a child before it is born is very much a key indicator in how this may continue into the next generation. Due to systematic oppression, many African American communities are stuck in poverty. As designer babies become more and more utilized, many people in poverty will not have access to this medical practice. This could serve to further entrench poverty disparity when someone can put on a resume that they were genetically modified to have a superior trait.
Much like designer babies stems from the growing ability to manipulate biology. It would be ill advised not to harken back to its positive roots in birth control. As D’Emillio states in his book Intimate Matters on birth control that “biology proved less and less to be destiny” (233). In terms of designer babies, biological predetermination is becoming a reality that will allow us to combat biology for our own purposes or even gains. Is society moving closer to a new problem, or is it simply progressing medically in order to meet the demands of a world that is progressively becoming more and more controllable or safe.
Though designer babies remain a highly controversial topic, the surge in interest demonstrates a shift in scientific attitudes. Designer babies are not used to create the “perfect child” with looks selected as if a parent was constructing an American Girl doll, but for health reasons. Researchers in Oregon used embryo editing to “repair a single gene mutation on a single gene…known to cause…heart disease” (Belluck). Heart disease is sometimes fatal, and this genetic editing has potentially saved a child’s life. Belluck concedes that editing embryos for normal human traits, such as eye or hair color, would be much more difficult. This emphasis on designer babies, therefore, is far more indicative of the advancement of modern medicine than an aspiration towards science fiction.
Some, however, feel that the idea of tampering with genetic makeup is dangerous and poses disasterous consequences. Throughout history, stories of superheroes and monsters have made people both cautious and excited with the idea of editing DNA. However, the National Institute of Health (NIH) stands by the older belief that designer babies pose “safety issues [and] ethical issues” (Fecht). The American government has long held a conservative stance on embryonic research (Fecht). This major health institute’s hesitance towards genetic editing demonstrates the uncertainty and fear surrounding this paradigm shift. There is an understandable fear that a line has been crossed, as designer babies are technically unnatural. It is still within the interest and nature of scientists to push the boundaries of the natural world with hopes of improving human life, which is why despite warnings from the NIH, scientists continue to dabble in the field. This crossing of what the NIH terms “ethically questionable lines in research” is particularly prevalent in China.
Chinese scientists appear to be taking the lead on genetic editing. Chinese researchers created a technique called CRISPR/Cas9 designed to edit human embryos (Maldarelli). It is so far the most effective technique in embryo editing. China is showing a clear shift towards valuing medical advancements over the ethical issues cited by the American government. However, as genetic editing is becoming more popular, this shift favoring scientific progress over ethical concerns shows that this will become an increasingly popular trend. Though the modern focus is on medical research, one day people may be able to use this technology to affect trait characteristics. This seems to be the science fantasy of many. The obsession with designer babies in the public eye is not about medical interest, but rather indicative of a growing obsession with image
When it comes to modifying chromosomes and selecting a baby’s genetic makeup in order to avoid particular defects, or to ensure that a particular gene is present, it is necessary to understand that many complications or health problems can occur because of how relatively new the process is. Also, because the process is uncommon and still being tested globally, the biggest health risk would be that many of the outcomes are still unknown. At this point in time it is hard for doctors to predict the exact outcome with certainty. Doctors say that it is easy to control some traits but controlling other traits can be an extreme risk because they are controlled by dozens to hundreds of genes. For example, modifying the height requires the alteration of 50+ genes, while changing the sex of a baby is much simpler. Because of this, a mistake in just one gene could potentially change the entire outcome of the desired baby. Altering these chromosomes and genes gives an increased risk of mutations and genetic complications for the child, thus causing a lot of disappointment for the parents.
Furthermore, because of how fairly new this process is, it is unknown to doctors and parents as to what will happen to them 10 to 20 years down the road, whether or not they will maintain a healthy life as a normal human being. There is a close watch on a select group of designer babies around the world that could one day be the answer to these worries. One thing that has occurred when creating designer babies is affecting personality traits during the process of gene modification. For example, if the parents want a kind, generous, upstanding citizen, due to the altering of many different genes there is a risk the baby may come out to be mean, disrespectful, and morally skewed. Further research has showed that designer babies tend to suffer socially due to their altered genes, also, the baby may become an outcast and feeling rejected because of the thought of their parents changing them instead of the parents accepting them for who they are. This could affect them on a psychological and emotional level, as well as potentially becoming a harm to society. Finally, the biggest complication or concern with this process is that parents who have decided to create a designer baby may not necessarily receive the baby they asked for. Because of how risky and complicated this process is, the desired traits may be completely different than expected.
Being able to select the traits of unborn children may seem like an abstract idea to some, but it may soon become a reality because of CRISPR-Cas9. According to the Broad Institute, CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique form of technology that enables researchers to “permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms and, in the future, may make it possible to correct mutations at precise locations in the human genome in order to treat genetic causes of disease” (BI). Emily Mullin of the MIT Technology review previously announced that CRISPR Therapeutics, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will be using this gene-editing technology to fix a “genetic defect in patients with beta thalassemia, which is an inherited blood disorder” (Mullin).
In just the past few years, advances in CRISPR have been happening consistently around the world. According to Mullin, various companies have been trying to commercialize the technology in the US and Europe. However, China has already taken advantage of CRISPR technology. According to Rob Stein, a journalist for NPR, “at least eight other Chinese studies of CRISPR for various forms of cancer are listed on a U.S. government website that serves as a clearinghouse for biomedical research worldwide. The list includes studies of CRISPR as a treatment for cancers of the lung, bladder, cervix and prostate” (Stein).
The hope is that CRISPR can be used to cure numerous types of disorders and cancers that do not have treatment options. The goal of the CRISPR technology is to be able to fix genetic errors in a sick persons DNA so that we can actually see where the problem is coming from. Although a lot of people would agree that this all sounds like a great plan, the reality of the situation is that the process of this coming into complete fruition is going to take some time.
That might be the dream, but the reality is far different. Already, investigators have delayed the start dates of clinical trials in the US and Europe. Alexey Bersenev, director of the Advanced Cell Therapy Lab at Yale-New Haven Hospital, says that “2019 could see a dozen or so submissions for clinical trials” (Mulin). Until then, upcoming studies will treat only a small amount of patients with rare diseases.
People across all cultures and times have cared about image and physical appearance. In many cultures, it has been normal to attempt to physically manipulate the traits of young children to appear more subjectively “attractive”. The obsession with designer babies is taking this idea and fascination to new heights. People are now examining the implications science may have in creating the “perfect child”. Yet if history has taught us anything, it is that perfection does not exist. It is to be striven for but never attained. Parents will always want the best for their children, but society is facing a new temptation with the growing ability to determine the genetic outcome of a child before it is born. Though designer babies are in their early stages, the future implications of this technology could have a major impact on how beauty and health is perceived. The fascination people have with image is becoming more and more radicalized in the modern world. Designer babies reveal both societies greatest current health and scientific capabilities, as well as an unhealthy obsession with image.
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