Genes are the instruction code for all of an individual’s features.[] Genetic modification (i.e., altering the genes of an organism[]) has been debated about for centuries. It can be used to treat medical conditions and to shape how a person develops[]. The movie “Gattaca” depicts a world where characteristics can be selected before birth. Some modern day companies are able to modify genetic data. For example, CRISPR Therapeutics edits genes to cure diseases (e.g., hemoglobinopathies, cancer, and diseases of the liver, lung, and muscle[]). With gene editing growing more popular, it’s important to consider the ethics of trait selection as it could be a future goal for gene editing businesses and research.
Diminished Genetic Variation and Environmental Changes
Parents should not be able to choose from a menu of preferred traits for their children. This could hinder children from carrying unique genes and could thus eventually reduce genetic variation which is necessary for the human species to continue and live when environmental changes suddenly take place. Parents would choose traits that conform to societal standards in order to grant their children characteristics that they believe are beneficial. While they might have somewhat good intentions for wanting their child to be successful in society, they are overall limiting diversity in the human population. The less genetic variation a population has, the less able it is to adapt to environmental changes. Humanity should not give up surviving major environmental changes as a species for being advantaged in society. While this would take hundreds of years and generations for genetic variation to significantly diminish, this process should not start at all.
Furthermore, the chosen traits that parents think are advantageous might be hated by their child. While children have all of their traits and features attributed to their parents because of genes, this occurs naturally and without the will of the parents. Allowing parents to choose how their child would turn out could cause tension in the family. Parents may want their daughter to be athletic and thus give her a muscular frame, but the daughter might not want to be involved with sports and could dislike the body that her parents purposefully chose for her because it reminds her that she did not fulfill their expectations. Likewise, parents might want their daughter to be a model and thus give her a thin frame, however the daughter might want to join the military but could be limited in how strong she can be. Giving parents the ability to choose certain traits for their children allows these children to blame and possibly even hate their parents for traits that disadvantage them in what they want to do. This world is not meant to be perfect, especially because everyone has different definitions and perceptions of perfection. Ideas of perfection should not be imposed on children as they might develop differing ideas and values of perfection. Genetic enhancement would place too much pressure and would establish expectations that are too high for people to deal with. In the movie “Gattaca,” the character Jerome has enhanced genes that made him seem like an olympic swimmer. However, when he won second place in a swimming competition, he tried to kill himself because he felt like such a failure.[] Placing this intense degree of pressure on people is not beneficial to society nor to humans. Physical and intellectual advantages should not be so valued that society cares more about these advantages than their mental health.
Raising the Standards for Effort and Striving
Some may believe that genetic enhancement will allow users to have better traits, which will make genetic enhancement replace valued work ethic. However, this is not completely true. Individuals will still be responsible for working hard and succeeding, and they will have to continue putting in effort in everything they do and continue striving for success with enhanced genes. In the present day, certain standards are expected from people who come from certain families. For example, when a husband and a wife both have Ivy League educations and both come from educated families, it is expected that their child is smart. The child still has the responsibility to work hard in their studies and extracurriculars; the child is not excused from a lot of effort simply because he/she has the genetic predisposition for traits that could allow him/her to excel in school. When a husband and a wife are both athletes, it is expected that their child is athletic. The child continues to have the responsibility to work out and practice a lot; the child is not excused from immense effort simply because he/she has the genetic predisposition for traits that could allow him/her to excel in athletics. If anything, these children that have to fulfill certain expectations must put in an enormous amount of work and time into whatever they are expected to excel in (school, sports, music, etc.). When society assumes that certain people have a genetic predisposition to be successful in certain fields, society will hold them to higher standards, and these people will have the responsibility for their performance in these certain fields. These expectations will be even more concrete when they have genetic enhancement. When society knows that certain people have special genes to give them advantages in certain fields, society would hold them to the highest standards, and those people will still have responsibility for their performance in these fields. Society will definitely assume that children with enhanced genes are destined to be successful, so these children must put in the effort and dedication to fulfill these standards.
As a result of genetic enhancement, there will be new divisions in society. Race today still causes issues because of intolerant and ignorant people. Adding enhanced genes as another aspect upon which people can create a further divided hierarchy in society will cause tension, pressure, and problems that can be avoided. People without enhanced genes could eventually be seen as disabled because they might not be perceived as being able to perform as well as those with enhanced genes. People with disabilities are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act,[] which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. People without enhanced genes will probably also be protected with a similar act to prohibit governments and businesses from treating people differently simply because they do not have enhanced genes. However, just because de jure discrimination of people without enhanced genes might not take place does not mean that de facto discrimination will not take place. People without enhanced genes will inevitably be discriminated against.
Furthermore, genetic modification would deepen inequalities in society. Only the rich, who already have access to good education, have the resources for optimizing health, and have more opportunities for work and sports, would be able to afford the presumably costly procedures of genetic selection and modification. Thus, the benefits brought about by genetic modification would benefit a group who are already advantaged.
Application for Public and Global Health
Genetic modification would violate the professional responsibility for doctors to do no harm as it reinforces the need to conform to society and adds enormous pressures to fulfill expectations. However, genetic enhancement would not violate this responsibility in cases where doctors are preventing deadly diseases with a genetic component. Preventing deadly diseases would not interfere with the professional ability to do no harm.
Ultimately, there are better ways to lengthen life expectancy, reduce disease, and strengthen intelligence than turning to genetic modification. Rather than using technology for selecting genes, which may only be available to the rich, developed nations should address other issues first, such as malaria which is rampaging areas in Africa and South Asia.[] Instead of pooling an insane amount of money into developing technology for genetic enhancement, efforts towards addressing global health should be implemented instead. Life expectancy in a country like the United States of America does not need to be lengthened even more when other countries have much shorter life expectancies, such as Tanzania which has a life expectancy of about 65 years.[] Nations should not try to improve situations that only the top 1% can experience through genetic enhancement when the majority of people have other issues that should be solved first. Developing and distributing vaccines, improving living and sanitary conditions, and making healthy food available are some ways for reducing diseases overall in the world, especially in third-world countries. Making health care accessible to everyone is a step that nations must take first before even thinking about allowing genetic enhancement. If everyone can’t have health care, how can the average person have genetic enhancement?
While fetal genetic modification can produce some benefits, there are much larger potentially detrimental issues it could bring about. Because parents are likely to select genes that provide societal advantages, the human race would fixate on a path to diminished genetic variation, which is disadvantageous when there are environmental changes. Genetic modification may create family tension as parents impose their expectations over their children’s bodies and futures. This may result in intense pressure and heightened standards that could destroy these children’s mental health.
Genetic modification technology to allow parents to select traits for their children should not be implemented as there are other issues that deserve more attention. Time and money can be focused on other, more pressing issues (e.g., malaria) that are faced by a larger portion of the world than the top 1% of the population that would be able to afford child trait selection.
- “What is a gene?,” National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, October 1, 2019, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/gene.
- Ross, Rachel. “What is Genetic Modification?.” Live Science. (2019). https://www.livescience.com/64662-genetic-modification.html.
- “Human Genetic Modification,” Center for Genetics and Society, Date accessed: October 7, 2019, https://www.geneticsandsociety.org/topics/human-genetic-modification.
- “Mission.” CRISPR. Date accessed: July 15, 2019. http://www.crisprtx.com/about-us/mission .
- GATTACA. Directed by Andrew Niccol. 1997; United States: Jersey Films). Film. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119177/.
- Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Public Law 101-336. 108th Congress, 2nd session (July 26, 1990). https://www.ada.gov.
- “Malaria.” World Health Organization. https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/malaria
- “Life expectancy at birth, total (years) – Tanzania.” The World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?locations=TZ
About the Author
Clare is a nursing student at University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she is a clinical medicine research coordinator for a study testing the effectiveness of a smartphone app in reducing insomnia in older adults, a copy-editor for a textbook about academic entrepreneurship, and a coordinator for her own pilot project testing smartphone-delivered compassion training to healthcare professionals.