Picture a young couple in a waiting room looking through a catalogue together. This catalogue is a little different from what you might expect. In this catalogue, specific traits for babies are being sold to couples to help them create the "perfect baby." This may seem like a bizarre scenario, but it may not be too far off in the future. Designing babies using genetic enhancement is an issue that is gaining more and more attention in the news. This controversial issue, once thought to be only possible in the realm of science-fiction, is causing people to discuss the moral issues surrounding genetic enhancement and germ line engineering. Though genetic research can prove beneficial to learning how to prevent hereditary diseases, the genetic enhancement of human embryos is unethical when used to create "designer babies" with enhanced appearance, athletic ability, and intelligence. Manipulating the genes of plants and animals is a feat we have mastered already. We are very close to doing the same thing with humans in an attempt to make them smarter, bigger and leaner (McKibben 22). Gregory Stock, an apostle of human engineering,' said of human germ line engineering, "It touches at the very core of what it means to be human. We are seizing control of our own evolution" (Gianelli 25). Mr. Stock summarized the very basis of genetic enhancement in this quote. In order to understand the arguments for and against genetic enhancement, one must first understand what it entails. In 1973, genetic engineering of single-cell bacteria was first accomplished (Silver 269). Since then, the idea of genetic engineering has grown significantly. We now use a procedure known as germ line engineering. This branch of genetic engineering is named for the type of cells it deals with. In the early embryonic stage, the unchanged cells develop into either germ cells or somatic cells (CRG). The germ cells are what turn into the sperm and eggs, and they also pass on hereditary characteristics. The somatic cells are the rest of the cells in the body that make up the organs, muscles, etc. Even though both types of cells contain genes, only germ cells pass their individual characteristics onto offspring (CRG). Any change performed with the sperm, eggs or embryo is considered either germ cell or germ line genetic modification. And, since the characteristics of germ cells are passed on to future generations, these modifications do not just affect the individual organism. In fact these changes, over a certain time period, may become part of the gene pool for good (CRG). These modifications include the removal of unwanted hereditary diseases and the enhancement of genes associated with appearance, intelligence, and athletic ability. Scientists at the Genetics and In Vitro Fertilization Institute in Virginia have already adapted a sperm sorting system that was originally developed for breeding farm animals. This system offers patients the option of predetermining the sex of their baby (Josefson 768). Most parents request this procedure in order to gain some sort of family balance'. Many believe it is this technology that will help to usher in an era of designer families (Josefson 768).
James Watson, former head of the Human Genome Project, has dared his fellow researchers to "try germ line therapy without knowing if it's going to work." (McKibben 22). He also said "...if scientists don't play God, who will?" as a defense on the behalf of genetic engineering before the British Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in June of 2000 (CRG). There are many other scientists, like James Watson, who support the use of genetic engineering to better the human race. One reason proponents are against this procedure is because it cleanses the gene pool of deadly genes such as diabetes. Molecular biologist, Daniel E. Koshland, Jr. wrote in an article,
Keeping diabetes alive with insulin, which
increases the propagation of an inherited disease,...
Cited: Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG). "Human Genetic
Manipulation and Cloning." Accessed 09 March 2004.
Gianelli, Diane M. "Prenatal gene therapy put on hold – for
now." American Medical News 1 Feb 1999: 21, 24-25.
Josefson, Deborah. "US centre offers choice over sex of
baby." BMJ 19 Sept 1998: 768.
McKibben, Bill. "Design-a-kid." Christian Century 17 May
Silver, Lee M. Remaking Eden. New York: Avon, 1998.
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