A British advisory group this week gave the green light to designer babies, saying that it could be “morally permissible” to genetically engineer human embryos. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has already approved three-parent babies (a step currently being considered by the Australian government), and unfortunately their latest report could lead to a change in the law on genetic engineering (“No ethical obstacle to ‘designer babies’, say scientists’, Telegraph, July 17, 2018).
Significantly, this organisation does not call itself the Nuffield Council for Bioethics, making it less surprising that a body really concerned with ethics would countenance such a deformation of biological science.
The human race daily faces the hazards of sickness, disability, famine, crime and war – disasters both natural and unnatural – and however traumatic the experience, it can recover from all these; but if human genetic editing “goes wrong” – for example, producing more problems than it solves, so diffuse in their effects as to be practically impossible to remedy – then the whole of the future of humanity will be imperilled.
Even if it “goes right” we will have succeeded in creating a race that prizes perfection above all else – that has no understanding and therefore no patience with imperfection.
Already we justify the eradication of the imperfect in the womb, or we approve of euthanasia for “hopeless cases” on the grounds of quality of life, all of which makes genetic “adjustments” to human embryos sound humane by comparison.
Prevention is better than cure, and eradicating illness and disability sounds like a laudable approach, but as Dr David King of Human Genetics Alert points out, most likely we would see the disadvantaging of people who could not afford genetic editing; possibly such people would be denied what used to be seen as routine treatments.
Most campaigns for unethical practices begin with compassionate arguments and robust rebuttals of slippery slopes warnings, but the Nuffield Council has openly announced the trajectory, oiliness and indeed endpoint of their own proposed slippery slope. They say that, although at the outset human genetic editing “would be largely used to cure devastating genetic illnesses or predispositions to cancers and dementia,” they do not rule out cosmetic uses such as increasing height or changing eye or hair colour.
Professor Karen Yeung, chairman of their working party on genome editing and human reproduction, maintains:
“There is potential for heritable genome editing interventions to be used at some point in the future in assisted human reproduction as a means for people to secure certain characteristics in their children. Initially, this might involve preventing the inheritance of a specific genetic disorder. However, if the technology develops it has potential to become an alternative strategy available to parents for achieving a wider range of goals.”
Currently scientists are only allowed to genetically edit human embryos for 14 days for research purposes, after which they must be destroyed, but the Council says it could become legal to implant such embryos in the womb “if legal safeguards were met.”
Clearly these legal safeguards do not actually safeguard the embryos – in fact the law, overseen by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, absolutely requires them to be killed, and it says much about our present tenuous grasp of ethical practice that we think it acceptable to experiment on embryos as long as we destroy the human victims.
Prof Yeung concludes:
“Whilst there is still uncertainty over the sorts of things genome editing might be able to achieve, or how widely its use might spread, the potential use of genome editing to influence the characteristics of future generations is not unacceptable in itself.”
Anyone who cannot see anything wrong with manipulating the characteristics of future generations — who have no choice in the matter of coming into the world, and are also to be denied the choice to decide on their own qualities — is not suited to a job in bioethics.
But in fact one does not need to be a bioethicist to notice the “characteristics” that idiosyncratic dog breeders seek in their pets to know that we cannot trust ourselves with such powers over our fellow humans. It is evident that such proposals require the demotion of human beings to the status of animals, to be bred, shaped and dispatched at the will of someone more powerful.
This approach has all the hallmarks of atheistic scientism – the God Got It Wrong school of thinking — which attempts to show that some human beings are in need of perfecting by other human beings. Religious believers may insist that God created the world as a perfect environment for the human race, but even Darwinians believe that human beings have become perfectly adapted to their varied environments.
Human genetic editing is a form of biofascism; it takes us back to the roots of this project in eugenics, which was the illegitimate offspring of Darwin’s theory. By proposing to manage human heredity it goes clear against his theory of Natural Selection, but in its full-blooded incarnation it almost succeeded. Since the failure of the Nazi eugenic experiment, however, it has been reincarnated as consumer eugenics and as such has proved much more successful.
If human genetic improvement is allowed as a consumer choice, we may succeed in engineering offspring who are more intelligent than we are and who despise us for it; but it will not be the first time in human history that human beings have looked on their own ancestors as inferior.
As someone with a genetic disorder I know that some sufferers, frustrated by the lack of medical understanding and help, question whether it is ethical knowingly to pass on the condition to their children and their children’s children. Already they feel guilty about something they cannot help, but if human genetic editing is legalised, anyone with such a condition will be made to feel guilty for passing on their biological “taint”.
How this will help the tragic cases routinely cited by unethical ethicists to gain their unethical endpoint remains a mystery.
Ann Farmer lives in the UK. She is the author of By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign (CUAP, 2008); The Language of Life: Christians Facing the Abortion Challenge (St Pauls, 1995), and Prophets & Priests: the Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement (St Austin Press, 2002).