Making better babies
|The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, by Michael J. Sandel
Suppose that scientists were to make the following discovery. When a woman consumes 11 pounds of broccoli sprinkled with lemon juice in the first trimester of her pregnancy, her baby will experience dramatic intellectual gains: 30 additional IQ points and doubled memory capacity. It seems a good bet that many pregnant women would alter their diet in light of this discovery, and there might be a lot of pushing and shoving in the produce section of the supermarket.
Intuitively, there doesn't seem to be anything morally objectionable in the desire of parents to enhance the intellectual or physical capabilities of their children by such dietary interventions. Indeed, there is an entire wall of books at your nearest bookseller dedicated to assisting parents who wish to enhance the intelligence and physique of their infants. Sceptics may doubt that playing Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to the fetus in utero will have much of an impact. But, if there were decent empirical evidence pointing in the direction of efficacy, hey, it's a lean mean world out there. Many would insist that it's a parental duty to ensure that one's tyke is not left behind in the race for success.
One of the nice things about my broccoli diet is that it's cheap, safe and readily available. But it takes only a moment's reflection to realize that parents who seek a competitive edge for their babies through broccoli will quickly find themselves mired in a self-defeating vegetable arms race. Being smarter and having a better memory won't help when one's competitors have been similarly enhanced.
In The Case against Perfection, Michael Sandel is concerned in part with the willingness of some parents to employ medical technology to bioengineer their child's cognitive or athletic abilities. Dr. Sandel holds an endowed chair at Harvard and is best known as a political philosopher, so this excursion into bioethics - which began as an essay in the Atlantic Monthly in 2004 - is a departure from his previous work.
He writes that such genetic technologies are likely, at least for the foreseeable future, to be extremely expensive. This raises important moral concerns. For example, the genetically enhanced children of wealthy parents may come to think of themselves as an altogether different species (the Gene Rich) from those condemned to settle for Nature's genetic lottery (the Gene Poor). The division between social classes, already wide, could easily become an unbridgeable chasm. Social cohesion, already thin, could be dangerously attenuated. The ideal of equality of opportunity, to which liberal societies pay at least lip service, might suffer a fatal blow. These dangers should be of concern to all who care about human equality, human dignity and social solidarity.
Proponents of genetic enhancement technologies argue, per contra, that if it's morally permissible to spend a great whack of money buying a superior education or special athletic coaching for one's child, then by parity of reasoning it should be permissible to spend comparable sums of money to purchase better genes. Some opponents accept that buying better genes for one's children is similar to buying them a better education, but then insist that a just society would permit neither, on the grounds that all children should have comparable life chances regardless of their parent's wealth. Dr. Sandel flirts with this egalitarian position.
Genetic enhancement technologies are not (yet) safe or effective - these are compelling reasons against permitting their use, especially when the "beneficiaries" would be unconsenting babies or children. But then Dr. Sandel asks a more basic question: "[S]uppose that muscle-enhancement, memory-enhancement, and height-enhancement technologies were perfected to the point where they were safe and available to all. Would they cease to be objectionable?"
The gravamen of the argument he then presents is that, even assuming safety and accessibility to all, bioengineering would nevertheless remain morally objectionable because it would somehow diminish our humanity. The Promethean aspiration to remake human nature may, he fears, destroy the gifted character of human powers and achievements: "To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition."
To accept them as they come? If we, as parents, are permitted or even expected to enhance our children's physical and intellectual powers through diet and education, how can it be objectionable in principle to enhance their powers by means of biotechnology?
Many readers will sympathize with Dr. Sandel's protest against a society which glorifies hyper-parenting, whether via genetic engineering or by spending a fortune on fancy prep schools. Children are surely entitled not to be so pushed, molded and manipulated by their parents that they cannot autonomously choose their own future. As Dr. Sandel himself concedes, however, there is no bright red line separating judicious parenting from the Promethean heresy.
Dr. Sandel's discussion offers a range of interesting and subtle arguments but, in the end, I'm not sure that the fulcrum of his argument - the quasi-religious notion of "giftedness" - can bear the load he places on it.
The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, by Michael J. Sandel, Belknap: Harvard, 2007, 162 pages, $19.60 Cdn.
Professor Schafer teaches philosophy at the University of Manitoba and directs the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.