Engineering Humanity: The Downfall of Democracy

by Megan Bridges

The following article originally appeared in The Spectrum:

“Designer baby” is a term that first entered the American lexicon in 1985 to describe children who are created through means of in vitro fertilization and whose genetic material has been enhanced by genetic engineering. The term has been reinvigorated with recent advancements in germline manipulation, a highly controversial method that alters germ cells (sperm and eggs) and allows the changes to be inherited by subsequent generations.

Some advocates of germline manipulation believe it is necessary to prevent parents from passing harmful genetic diseases on to future generations. The technique of pre-implantation screening, however, already exists to serve this end; using in vitro fertilization, only healthy fertilized eggs are implanted and brought to term. Other proponents embrace the possibility of someday designing children to have desirable characteristics, like athletic and musical ability, intelligence, and attractiveness.

Why shouldn’t parents be allowed to enhance their children if that means giving them better opportunities in life?

Germline manipulation has tremendous biological and societal implications that must be considered in tandem with medical and technological advancements. Among the anticipated detriments of genetic engineering to individual and social well-being is its threat to democracy.

Democracy is built on two guiding principles: all individuals have equal value and all people are autonomous. Germline manipulation challenges hegemonic notions of equality and, perhaps even more troubling, infringes on the individual freedoms of the genetically modified persons in question.

In his seminal work, Remaking Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will Change the Human Family, Princeton University biologist Lee Silver acknowledges that genetic engineering could lead to an unsettling future in which society is segregated between the “GenRich,” those who belong to an elite class whose parents could afford the expensive “designer baby” procedures, and the “Naturals,” those unaltered by genetic engineering. The story he tells is one of social and biological inequality, in which the GenRich control society. In this reality, people are quite literally born unequal.

The GenRich–who account for 10 percent of the American population–all carry synthetic genes. All aspects of economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by members of the GenRich class… Naturals work as low-paid service providers or as laborers… [eventually] the GenRich class and the Natural class will become entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.

While it would be naïve to suggest that all individuals exist on an even playing field, our current sociopolitical system allows for social mobility by providing opportunities for individuals to transcend their socioeconomic conditions to achieve success. In the account Silver provides, however, social mobility is virtually impossible as the ruling class is biologically superior to the lower classes. The GenRich have the leg up because they transcend humanity.

Not only could genetic engineering foreseeably lead to an elite ruling class with little political participation from the Naturals, but it could also lead to enormous strains on international political systems. Jamie Metzl, a former member of the National Security Council, poses a hypothetical situation in which China has developed genetically modified people with “better brain capacities for innovation, who can work longer hours and increase productivity, and have stronger sensory perceptions.” Competition will force the United States and other international powers to decide between 1) doing nothing and risk losing their seat as a dominant global force; 2) beginning their own genetic engineering activities in a genetic arms race; or 3) working to stop genetic engineering activities in China through peaceful or military means. Germline manipulation threatens democracy both domestically and abroad.

In addition to the social repercussions of genetic engineering is its infringement of the individual freedom to make choices regarding self and body. The first generation of genetically modified children will essentially be lab experiments since it is unknown exactly how germline manipulation will affect human babies. For obvious reasons, the genetically engineered child cannot provide direct consent for the procedure. Therefore, the child must live with the decisions its parents made, for better or for worse. It is unethical to perform a potentially harmful elective procedure on a person unable to provide his or her consent.

Although genetic modification is an exciting possibility that would allow parents to perhaps exponentially improve the success of their children, it comes at a great cost to individual freedoms and existing sociopolitical systems. It directly conflicts with democratic values of equality and autonomy, and, if Silver’s predictions are correct, will lead to increased social stratification and injustice.

Works Cited