Designer babies: what's not to like? [57]

Dr. Keith WittCultural Commentary

Mother and ChildThe Christian Science Monitor (6-25-12), in response to scientists for the first time mapping the DNA of a fetus, recently had a commentary questioning the ethics of “designer babies”–altering a fetus’s DNA to prevent disease or create attractive traits like intelligence and beauty. The article says:

Yet at a deeper level, such advances in the human mastery of the reproductive process also stir up questions about what is “natural”–or rather, whether “natural selection” will, or should, become “deliberate selection.”

The debate about natural vs. deliberate selection not only misses the point about what it means to be a human parent, but ignores the responsibilities we have to all infants and children. In this blog I’ll first explore how people have been manipulating the human genome for thousands of years, and then look at the more important issue of how we know so much about influencing a child’s development that, for better or worse, every baby is a designer baby and we have an obligation to infants, families, and our country to design the happiest, healthiest, most successful babies we can.

People have always influenced human genes.

First of all, let’s lose the pointless arguments about genetic manipulation and face the evolutionary facts. Humans will continue to explore and manipulate the human genome–always with the intent to make life better for babies and families. Natural selection went out the window with self-awareness.

Genetic evolution increased by a factor of one hundred (that’s ten thousand percent) when humans started living in cities. Much of this was due to having to adjust to diseases easily spread in large groups as well as to foods such as milk and grains. However, adapting to disease and food is just part of the story. People have manipulated genes through deliberate and unconscious breeding strategies for thousands of years. Examples?

  • Arranged marriages (still popular in India and other areas of the world) often have included matching physical and personality traits as well as material resources.
  • Data from Europe suggests that, over relatively few generations, poor classes generated more attractive daughters than wealthy classes (ostensibly to attract wealthier mates).

How a child is raised mostly matters more than genes, and we have the responsibility to help children and families thrive–to help every baby be a designer baby.

Deliberately manipulating babies’ genes isn’t the biggest ethical quandary we face in altering infants. Research has generated tons of data showing how care and nurturance of mothers and infants has profound effects on children’s development–often far more than their genetic endowment:

  • A mother who is stressed and poor at stress management in her last trimester is more likely to have a baby with stress management problems, earlier adolescence (associated higher likelihood of teen pregnancy), and less secure attachment to family.
  • Malnourished mothers produce babies significantly more at risk for diabetes and other health problems.
  • Mothers who can’t attune well (a learnable/teachable skill) are at risk to create insecure attachment styles with infants that result in children growing up emotionally dismissive, needy and clingy, or just plain crazy and disorganized.
  • Mothers and fathers with one weekend of training in how to better love each other and their baby through the transition into parenthood are twice as likely to be stable and happy with each other and their baby three years after the birth (a big deal since may divorces happen the first year of a child’s life).
  • Having a gifted teacher just one school year translated into tens of thousands of extra income for children when they became adults.
  • Certain educational systems have been proven to be superior to others–we all know that prep schools, small classes, inspiring teachers, physical education, educated mothers, proper nutrition, exposure to the arts, family involvement, and enriched environments help children grow and succeed. Why don’t all children and families have access to these resources?

            The above factors change who a child grows up to be–they are “deliberate” selections that have much more impact on growth than if you altered your kid’s genes to be taller or have a higher IQ. Society and parents can deliberately choose to insure these developmental resources or not.

Is it ethical for us as a society to not provide support to mothers, infants, and children that vastly enhances kids thriving and contributing throughout their whole lives? Is it right for us to know what creates superior development and then deny those resources to so many mothers and children? I believe we have the responsibility to prioritize the optimal development of all infants and children in our country.

This is the real ethical dilemma of natural vs. deliberate selection. These are the designer babies we should all be supporting.

Image Credit: subactive