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Genetic Enhancement - Designer Babies

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Designer Babies

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, seems justified only if one ultimately is willing to do genetic engineering to remove diabetes from the germ line and thus save the anguish and cost to millions of diabetics. (CRG)

Proponents also believe that genetic engineering would prevent the necessity for repeated gene modifications for somatic cells as well.

Another reason some scientists support this procedure is to give couples a way to prevent passing on genes to their future offspring that may predispose them to inherit a condition they want to avoid (CRG).

Also, with germ line modification, couples would be able to enhance certain characteristics of their future children. Koshland says that germline alteration could meet future 'needs' to design individuals "better at computers, better as musicians, better physically" (CRG). James Watson has told researchers to "try to prevent ugly babies and stupid people and to reduce the odds that anyone will be shy or a 'cold fish'" (McKibben 22). The basic selling point of germ line modification that supporters like Watson seem to be focusing on for the long term is the possibility of the 'enhancement' of desired traits. In other words, the possibility of designer children (CRG).

So-called 'successful' attempts at germ line modification will bring the production of human beings into the world of designer items. The human creations will be subject to the "fashion of the times" just like any other designer item (CRG). Those in favor of germ line manipulation make the assumption that once a gene in a certain condition is found, it is only appropriate and would be reasonably easy to replace it, change it, or remove it.

However, this is not true at all. There is no way for scientists to know the full effect that any sort of gene modification would have on traits of people or other organisms. The reason is simple: biological traits or characteristics are usually dependent

on interactions with many other genes (CRG).

There are options available to parents who are afraid to pass on gene-related diseases that are far less expensive and less dangerous than genetic modification. Adoption, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization are three choices that would not result in some sort of "super human" (CRG). There are obviously risks associated



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