The Seductive Siren Song of Genetic Enhancement
COMMENTARY: Promoted as ushering in a new era of progress and freedom, genetic enhancements actually lead to coercion and the loss of human dignity.
Two recent magazine covers together give us a glimpse of the possible future of humanity. They seem completely unrelated. Next to each other on a coffee table, most people would never make the connection. Yet they are inextricably linked, jointly warning us to take action before it’s too late.
The first, which appeared on the cover of the Aug. 22 issue of The Economist, is about the possibilities of using new genetic-engineering techniques to enhance our children. The second, which appeared on the June 29 cover of Time, is about plastic surgery.
The Economist pictures an adorable baby reaching for colorful alphabet letter blocks. Pointing at her head is an arrow labeled, “High IQ.” Another arrow points to her ears, with the words “Perfect Pitch.” On the left side of the image, the arrow pointing at her calf says, “Sprinter.”
The corresponding article is about new genetic-engineering techniques that many are hoping will revolutionize medicine. The ability to precisely edit the DNA in our cells may hold the key to treatments to an array of human ailments. From Alzheimer’s to cancer, gene-editing research is opening exciting new avenues to tackle some of the most devastating diseases. This research into therapeutic applications is absolutely a good we must pursue.
But The Economist article, titled “Editing Humanity,” doesn’t stop there. It explores the possibility of using these gene-editing techniques to go beyond therapy to enhancement. Many people confuse therapy and enhancement, since they would use the same technology to alter our DNA. While therapy seeks to cure or treat disease, enhancement would take otherwise healthy individuals and augment them in some way — higher IQ, more athletic ability, greater talent for music, etc.
The siren song of genetic enhancement is seductive. What parent wouldn’t want the smartest, fastest and most talented kids in the neighborhood?
The Catholic Church is clear that gene therapy is a moral good, but genetic enhancement is morally wrong because its intent is to change the very nature of mankind. The Charter for Health Care Workers by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance, states that genetic engineering for therapeutic reasons is morally acceptable to treat disease, but enhancements to the genome are another thing entirely:
“On the other hand, interventions which are not directly curative, the purpose of which is ‘the production of human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities,’ which change the genotype of the individual and of the human species, ‘are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being, to his integrity and to his identity. Therefore, they can be in no way justified on the pretext that they will produce some beneficial results for humanity in the future.’ ‘No social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic; that is, its finality must be the natural development of the human being.’”
There is great concern in the scientific community that this groundbreaking research into therapeutic genetic engineering will usher in human genetic enhancements. We all should be concerned. There are little to no laws that prohibit enhancement research in many countries, including the United States. Even more disturbing is the lack of legislation in the U.S. dealing with germ-line genetic engineering, which is engineering that will be passed down from one generation to the next.
Some scientists have called for a voluntary moratorium on using gene-editing techniques in human embryos, whether for therapy or enhancement, because this would be germ-line engineering, affecting not just the embryo, but his or her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In a recent opinion piece for Nature, prominent gene-editing researchers called the editing of the DNA of human embryos “dangerous and ethically unacceptable.” They also fear the slippery slope from therapy to enhancements, stating: “Many oppose germ-line modification on the grounds that permitting even unambiguously therapeutic interventions could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement. We share these concerns.”
‘Nip. Tuck. Or Else’
While the Time article is about plastic surgery, not human genetic enhancements, it nevertheless contains an implicit caution about what will happen if we begin to allow such enhancements. The cover pictures the face of a woman looking up at two gloved hands. One hand is holding a syringe; the other is holding a scalpel. The title of the piece by Joel Stein is “Nip. Tuck. Or Else. Why you will be getting cosmetic procedures even if you don’t want to.”
Stein argues that the acceptance of both non-invasive and invasive plastic surgery, along with the widespread use of these procedures, has created a culture where even people who don’t want a face-lift or a tummy tuck feel compelled to have them anyway just because everyone else is doing it. He argues that, in the near future, especially for women in certain professions, not having some kind of plastic surgery will be unthinkable.
Abigail Brooks, director of Women’s Studies at Providence College, conducted research on women who used anti-aging plastic surgery and those who were aging naturally. The women who didn’t avail themselves of the skills of a plastic surgeon were said to have “let themselves go” and were “not taking good care of themselves.” Brooks told Stein, “It’s becoming harder and harder to say No without being read as irrational or crazy.”
“You’re going to have to do it. And not all that long from now. ... No, it’s not fair that — in 2015, with a woman leading the race for the Democratic nomination for president — in addition to dieting, coloring your hair, applying makeup and working out, you now have to let some doctor push syringes in your cheeks just to look presentable. It’s not fair that you have to put your surgery on your credit card just so the other moms on the playground don’t overestimate your age. It’s not fair that you may risk your life going under general anesthesia just to keep up.”
And therein lies the problem. Braces, teeth whitening and Botox injections are one thing. Invasive procedures that require general anesthesia and surgery are another.
Whether he realizes it or not, Stein is warning us that enhancement procedures are naturally coercive. What begins as a choice quickly becomes a requirement. When that requirement has potential for serious bodily harm, even death, for otherwise healthy people, everyone loses.
There is another arena that is warning us about the coercive nature of enhancements — sports. When one player starts using performance-enhancing drugs, other athletes feel compelled to do the same. Otherwise, they cannot compete. This is why sport in general has resisted doping and has heavy sanctions against those who break the rules. Healthy athletes shouldn’t be bullied into enhancing drugs or procedures which put their health at risk just so they can have a shot at winning. Nor should society condone or encourage such a system.
It’s a cold, hard fact that once we begin to use therapeutic genetic-engineering techniques on healthy people for augmentation purposes, a time will come when we must enhance ourselves and our children simply to participate in society. Such a culture will be devastating for the inherent dignity found in each human person.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben, in his book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, illustrates what we have in store if we ever start enhancing our children. He calls enhancements a “biological arms race” that no one can win. He relates the theoretical case of Sophie, whose parents have genetically augmented her to have a higher IQ. In just a few years, Sophie’s enhancement will be replaced with an even better one — more IQ points, along with a photographic memory.
By the time Sophie reaches the workforce, her “hardware” will be outmoded. She simply won’t be able to keep up with younger workers who have the benefit of better upgrades.
Sophie will, herself, be obsolete. Not her phone, not her computer, not her car, but her body will be like the floppy disc or the VCR — ineffectual in a world where technology has moved on.
McKibbens warns, “The vision of one’s child as a nearly useless copy of Windows 95 should make parents fight like hell to make sure we never get started down this path. But the vision gets lost easily in the gushing excitement about ‘improving’ the opportunities for our kids.”
Now imagine that adorable baby on the cover of The Economist and how she will be considered obsolete by the time she is 10. That is exactly what enhancements will do to us. They will turn people into cellphones and iPads, forever being discarded for the latest model.
McKibben doesn’t exaggerate when he writes, “The stakes in this argument are absurdly high, nothing less than the meaning of being human.”
Proponents of enhancements are continually touting how the latest augmentation technologies are all about freedom and personal autonomy. What they don’t realize is that, once we are obliged to intrusively violate our bodily integrity to simply have a place in society, then we are subject to the tyranny of our own technology.
It is imperative that Catholics inform the culture around us of the dangers of human enhancements. If we don’t, we will surely become a society where you must enhance. Or else.
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics on her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.