Around the Institute

Designer Babies: Where Does Society Draw the Line?

November 10, 2014  • Alison Berkley Margo, Guest Blogger

Designer babies  — a term to describe the use of genetic selection to determine desired qualities of a child, such as eye color or even enhanced intelligence — are becoming closer to reality. With the potential to change everything from a newborn’s eye color to its health conditions (or lack thereof), where do we as a society draw the line? Should these technologies be aimed exclusively at pathogenic conditions, and if so, what are the risks and implications for future generations? 

Community members in Aspen, CO, recently took on this issue during the launch of a new four-week Aspen Community Program Series called Our Society Reimagined: Exploring New Ideas. The seminar gives participants a chance to engage in non-partisan discussion and debate regarding the future implications of technology and innovation.

The first debate focused specifically on two current genetic modification techniques: mitochondrial DNA transfer (mtDNA) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Patients undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) can use PGD in order to select the healthiest embryos for implantation, therefore reducing the risk of birth defects while increasing the chances of a successful live birth pregnancy. MtDNA transfer has been recommended for people with mitochondrial diseases to be able to have their own children by combining their own nuclear DNA with mitochondrial DNA provided by a healthy donor.

“Technology can be a double-edge sword,” said Peter Frey, a retired Northwestern University professor. “Over the past two decades, the pace of technology has accelerated. New technology emerges on a daily basis, and keeping up is difficult. Our challenge is to use it to improve our lives and to minimize its negative consequences.”

Daniel Wetzel, an associate at the Rocky Mountain Institute and former formulation scientist, asked the group to consider the issue in a biologic, rather than moral or humanist context.

“We as humans have evolved the ability to change things on a radically different time scale than nature is used to,” he said. Wetzel cited the implications of past technological adaptations such as anthropogenic climate change due to the use of fossil fuels and mass extinction caused by industrial agriculture.

“We need to recognize that the societal decisions we make do not simply have moral dimensions but real biological implications as well. We design solutions to benefit humanity in the short term without considering our environment in the long term.”

Wetzel supports “smart regulation” of genetic manipulation technology use and said it is “reckless not to understand the potential of this technology,” should we be faced with a threat that could utilize it in the future.

Kat Daley, on-site host and experience manager for the luxury travel agency Cuvee, conceded to the biological context of the issue but insists it’s also an ethical, moral, religious, and financial choice as well. “Who is financing this?” Daley asked. “And what if interest runs out, and we are then left with manipulated DNA with no one to determine the long term ramifications? What about other diseases that are more prevalent killers, like cancer, heart disease, AIDS, and obesity, that could also use the funding?” 

Daley raised the issue of medical tourism as posing a challenge against regulation in a global society. She fears where this technology is headed, citing the possibility of eugenics and a culture defined by genetic engineering.

“Are we going down a path of creating our own Krypton?” she asked. “A place where babies are bred for a specific purpose?” Rather than trying to keep up with countries like China, which has identified the genes necessary to increase intelligence, Daley asked, “Why can’t we be a leader in ethics and be the ones to point out the bigger picture?”

Participants shared other perspectives and concerns, including social stratification due to the high cost of genetic technologies; undermining the human experience; medical tourism in a global environment; and more.

For better or for worse, the majority of those in attendance agreed that it is too late to change course now. But several pointed to one human trait that science cannot manipulate. “We can’t define the mystery of our personalities or explain how it is connected to our genetic makeup,” said participant Denali Barron. “You can manipulate a chromosome, but there is so much more depth and resonance to our humanity than we’re addressing.”

“You can’t eliminate the emotional side,” said participant Marcia Flaks. “To quote E.O. Wilson, ‘the instability of emotion is the essence of human character.’ Human nature may be the great regulator. It has a way of stepping in and making things better.”

Our Society Reimagined: Exploring New Ideas is part of the new four-week Aspen Community Program Series. It is designed as a forum for community members to gain insight into specific issues facing our society today, as well as research viable solutions to these issues. Visit our event calendar to learn more.