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Medicine Science

Genetically Engineering Babies a Moral Obligation, Says Ethicist 840

Posted by timothy
from the perfect-babies-only dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The Telegraph reports that Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu, an expert in practical ethics, says that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a 'moral obligation' as it makes them grow up into 'ethically better children' and that we should actively give parents the choice to screen out personality flaws in their children such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence as it means they will then be less likely to harm themselves and others. 'Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?' writes Savulescu, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics. 'So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.' Savulescu says that we already routinely screen embryos and fetuses for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Down's syndrome and couples can test embryos for inherited bowel and breast cancer genes. 'Whether we like it or not, the future of humanity is in our hands now. Rather than fearing genetics, we should embrace it. We can do better than chance.'"
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Genetically Engineering Babies a Moral Obligation, Says Ethicist

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:28AM (#41035189)

    without alcohol's input?

    • by iluvcapra (782887) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:10AM (#41035853)

      Non-suicidal. The fact is we don't know what Hemmingway would have done without alcohol (let alone alcoholism, which is a different question).

      It would be egregious however to deny someone treatment for alcoholism on the basis that it will hurt their literary output. We can't simply deny people remedies because their diseases are so "picturesque," We might as well deny antibiotics to lepers, on account of the fact that their disease reminds us of God's wrath.

  • Ethics (Score:5, Insightful)

    by buchner.johannes (1139593) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:28AM (#41035191) Homepage Journal

    But where do diseases end, where does aesthetics start? Who enforces that line for the rich? Clearly this guy hasn't seen enough dystopian movies about two-class societies emerging from genetics.

    • Re:Ethics (Score:4, Insightful)

      by BeanThere (28381) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:06AM (#41035457)

      Is there a contest running somewhere called "Can we turn any slashdot topic into an anti-rich diatribe"?

      This topic isn't even about the rich, it's specifically about a potential era where these technologies may become affordable enough to apply on a massive scale. So try again.

      • Don't be so naive (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Zero__Kelvin (151819) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:47AM (#41035709) Homepage

        "This topic isn't even about the rich, it's specifically about a potential era where these technologies may become affordable enough to apply on a massive scale."

        Every topic about any subject with potential for abuse is about the rich (though not solely so, of course.) The rich are the people in power. Those with power decide how any technology will be used. Everything is a double-edged sword, and the question "How will those who hold the largest double-edged swords use them?" is always entirely valid. Indeed, it must be asked.

        I hope this helps you understand why "we turn any slashdot topic into an anti-rich diatribe", which is - of course - a complete mischaracterization of the nature of the discussion.

        • by ScentCone (795499) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:37AM (#41036055)

          a complete mischaracterization of the nature of the discussion

          Other than the part where he's exactly right. This is a prevalent, recurring theme throughout many /. threads, and the tone of such posts is almost always irrational, whiney, or worse. The GP is very observant. Not that you'd have to be to spot that trend.

      • Re:Ethics (Score:4, Informative)

        by blahplusplus (757119) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:47AM (#41035711)

        "Can we turn any slashdot topic into an anti-rich diatribe"?

        The idea that rich people historically came into existence by merit and not by legal exploitation and a cubic fuck-tonne of wars and violence is a myth. The legal foundations of a society are backed by guns and violence and anyone who thinks the current system is not exploitive and rigged in some sense is a moron, the whole legal framework is setup to deny economic rights to the majority through historical enclosure movements which to enable the new legal framework requires massive violence and unrest. So to talk negatively of the rich is the historically LITERATE thing to do.

        Enclosure:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclosure [wikipedia.org]

        Bail outs (priviledges of the elite) see here:

        http://dailybail.com/home/there-are-no-words-to-describe-the-following-part-ii.html [dailybail.com]

        and here:

        http://dailybail.com/ [dailybail.com]

      • Re:Ethics (Score:5, Insightful)

        by lessthan (977374) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:50AM (#41035727)

        I disagree with the grandparent's stance that aesthetic genetic engineering is morally wrong, but he is correct about bringing the rich into this. When a new feature for cars comes out (like anti-lock brakes), the high-end cars get them first. It takes a couple of years for the improvement to trickle down to the rest of us (about 10 years for ABS). Don't be mistaken, it will be the same for designer babies. In fact, I think it has already started. Substitute the word test for the word feature and you can already see the similarity between car features and babies. New tests for fetuses are being developed all the time to find defects and correct issues. There are "experiments" being done right now to "correct" babies with intersex issues [medicalxpress.com].

        Economic stratification is becoming an issue in the United States. The paranoid, pessimistic predictions (paranoia and pessimism doesn't automatically make a prediction improbable) see that stratification becoming more pronounced, with a deep divide between the rich and the poor. With fetal engineering, rather than talking about whether or not to get a car with a sunroof, we are talking about how many IQ points we can afford. So the wealthy will not only be richer, but they will be born far beyond what the average person could ever be. The basis of the American Dream is that anyone can make it. Fetal engineering is the death of that dream.

      • Sensitive much? The rich already take advantage of the better health-care that they can afford while arguing that the poor can just go to the emergency room. What would make any rational being believe that the rich would take advantage of this as well? If you can't look around and see how the rich are already taking every opportunity to manipulate things to their advantage - and have been for centuries - then you already have the rich blinders on. Either that or you blindly think you will be rich one day an
    • by Sarten-X (1102295)

      But where do diseases end, where does aesthetics start?

      In the dictionary [google.com]:

      A particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or group of people.

      The line is entirely subjective, based on someone's particular definition of "adverse". If, for example, parents see being a redhead as adversity, why should they be prohibited from engineering a blonde?

      Who enforces that line for the rich?

      Why should anyone?

      Clearly this guy hasn't seen enough dystopian movies about two-class societies emerging from genetics.

      Or perhaps movies aren't the best indicator of future progress. More likely than a two-class dystopia is just an evolution of our current society, where the rich can have medical procedures done on a whim, and the poor can have procedures done after months of careful plann

    • Re:Ethics (Score:4, Insightful)

      by blahplusplus (757119) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:43AM (#41035689)

      "Clearly this guy hasn't seen enough dystopian movies about two-class societies emerging from genetics."

      We ALREADY have a two class society, whether capitalists admit it or not the 'pay you what you're worth' element of capitalism NATURALLY sorts people eugenically to some extent whether any of us want it to or not.

  • Soooooo..... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by robinsonne (952701) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:29AM (#41035205)
    So in the future I should have super docile, conformist babies that fit the cookie cutter notion of how a baby should look? No thanks, I'll just stick with chance.
    • Re:Soooooo..... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ScentCone (795499) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:43AM (#41036119)

      No thanks, I'll just stick with chance.

      And if your whistling-past-the-graveyard la-dee-da-chance-is-fine-with-me baby turns out to need $200k worth of otherwise avoidable neo-natal heart work or a lifetime of constant nursing care, you'll be happy to stick other people with the bill, too, right? Because that how that ends of working.

      It's one thing to get hit by a bus on your way to work and rack up $1m in neurolgical services. It's another thing to decide to go rock climging without a belay or helmet, and do the same. Likewise, knowing you've got a quarter of a teaspoon of embryo with sure-fire signs of a short, miserable, explensive life of pain and suffering in store for it, and proceeding anyway ... yeah, you're a nice guy. Chance is fun! Save it for poker, not the avoidable horror show of a sick and dying kid.

  • No, just no. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:30AM (#41035209)

    I'm not even going to bother with the obligatory "what could possibly go wrong", because this is so bat-shit crazy and irresponsible. We simply do not understand how personalities work and how traits interact - to even suggest that we start removing traits before we understand how whole works is just as stupid as suggesting we amputate everyone's left hand to make sure everyone is right handed and not 'sinister'.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:40AM (#41035285)

    My wife worked for a pediatrician in a well to do area a couple of years ago and if it looked like their kid was going to be under 6 foot, they would ask for a referral to an endocrinologist for hormones to get the kid to grow a bit more. The pediatrician didn't think it was necessary in most cases, but they are his patients so he complied. The parents wanted the best for their kids and wanted to insure that they could get any advantage that they could possibly get for them.

    James Watson, co-discover of DNA, was on the National Press Club a few years ago, and this question was asked (can't find the archive right now - heard on NPR). Anyway to paraphrase,

    90% of CEOs are over 6 foot. A 5 foot 2 inch tall man and a five foot tall woman may want to better the opportunities for their child.

    Of course, what he meant was that up to a point, height matters in all sorts of endeavors and not only sports: politics, finding a mate, work, etc ... There is a strong correlation between height and success. Yes, I know - queue up all the exceptions but keep in mind, many of those were extraordinary people; such as Einstein - 5' 5".

    • by Scarred Intellect (1648867) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:35AM (#41035631) Homepage Journal

      My wife worked for a pediatrician in a well to do area a couple of years ago and if it looked like their kid was going to be under 6 foot, they would ask for a referral to an endocrinologist for hormones to get the kid to grow a bit more. The pediatrician didn't think it was necessary in most cases, but they are his patients so he complied. The parents wanted the best for their kids and wanted to insure that they could get any advantage that they could possibly get for them.

      James Watson, co-discover of DNA, was on the National Press Club a few years ago, and this question was asked (can't find the archive right now - heard on NPR). Anyway to paraphrase,

      90% of CEOs are over 6 foot. A 5 foot 2 inch tall man and a five foot tall woman may want to better the opportunities for their child.

      Of course, what he meant was that up to a point, height matters in all sorts of endeavors and not only sports: politics, finding a mate, work, etc ... There is a strong correlation between height and success. Yes, I know - queue up all the exceptions but keep in mind, many of those were extraordinary people; such as Einstein - 5' 5".

      Malcolm Gladwell pointed out this exact phenomenon in his book Blink [gladwell.com] , which he calls the Warren Harding effect.

      While searching for the presiden't name (I'd forgotten it, but I loved reading the book) I also ran across this: Malcolm Gladwell Explains Why Underdogs Win An 'Astonishing' Amount Of The Time [businessinsider.com]. Ha! Take that You expert in practical ethics!

      What the hell is an expert in practical ethics, anyway?

    • Genetic engineering is different from what you describe, for multiple reasons. One reason is that what you describe is not transmitted to the child's offspring, so it is less likely to result in a separated and immensely powerful upper class. See http://science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=3056849&cid=41035551 [slashdot.org]

  • by Kohath (38547) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:41AM (#41035293)

    Its always the same thing withe busybodies and totalitarians: Anything that is not forbidden is mandatory.

    Here's an alternate ethic: Leave us alone. We'll make our own choices.

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      Some would argue that autonomy is the only ethic that matters. But there will always be someone more than willing to tell you what to do and how to live.
    • by BeanThere (28381) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:07AM (#41035467)

      Yeah, we can turn the question around: If someone has a baby without genetically engineering it, have they actually committed some sort of evil crime? Enough to, presumably I guess, arrest them and put them in jail? That's what the guy is arguing.

  • by joneil (677771) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:45AM (#41035311)

    We have five different genetic conditions in our family, some are considered diseases, others are considered disabilities. I am quite sure under these new "ethics", myself and my whole family would be on the top of the list for instant abortion. Yet despite all medical conditions, many of my family have lived very long and productive lives. In same cases, I consider my relatives and ancestors choice and will to fight and overcome the odds stacked against them something to inspire me to never feel sorry for myself. Would we ever see such a thing in a future where all babies were born "perfect"? I think the sense of entitlement we see in our society is already overwhelming as it is, and i find it's people who overcome their disabilites that throw cold water, figuratively speaking, in the fact of self indulgence and entitlement. Would we see that this 'ethical" future?

          My other point, this whole issue reminds of of that famous line from near the end of the movie "The Third Man", where the character Harry Lime says:

    "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

        In a world full of "perfect babies", well, just saying.

  • by Chas (5144) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:45AM (#41035313) Homepage Journal

    He's STILL talking eugenics.

    Even taking out the racial connotations and stating you're looking at it from a more "humane" angle is STILL going to raise hackles.

    Also, genetics has been getting studied for under a century. While YES, we know a LOT about the human genome, there's still a lot we don't know. Such as WHY some of these diseases and behaviors are in our genetic code in the first place. Yet people want to start selecting away from it, or better still, excising it from our genetic code?

    They're essentially playing with fire, and the nearest bucket of water is someplace in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri.

    • by Shavano (2541114)

      While YES, we know a LOT about the human genome, there's still a lot we don't know. Such as WHY some of these diseases and behaviors are in our genetic code in the first place.

      Sure we do. Random mutation and inefficient natural selection of uncommon recessives. And some undesirable characteristics are selected for even though they harm society. Imagine a gene that causes men to rape women. The rapist gene could result in the men who have it making more babies, until somebody hangs them.

  • by Aviation Pete (252403) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:45AM (#41035315)
    by choosing a mate which we like. Good looks and a compatible character are the biggest factors in choosing a partner with which to reproduce. Consequently, we try to increase these desired traits in our offspring.

    The question is only when we start to be open about it and try to influence the genetic composition of our kids more directly,

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      Looking at divorce rates, I am not so sure you make a valid points. Perhaps we mate with people we THINK we like, but end up hating... Perhaps it has a lot more to do with impulse than actual planning. I often think that as a species we're not as smart as we like to think we are. Otherwise the human race has a lot to answer for. Maybe when we're smart we can re-visit this whole selective breeding thing, in a million years or so.
  • Then we can legally mandate, better babies or no babies.
    If we can get there, then we just make sure what babies are better and what babies rule US.
    DAMN! This may have happened over two hundred years ago with a selective breeding project for the leading political families of US.
    IMO: It would explain Bush, but not Reagan, maybe Reagan worked for our Gang of Four (King of Hearts Chaney, Dummy Don Rumsfield, Pontious Pilot Bush, and Coffee Candy Rice) and Animals Control Officer Rove.

    China will do it to US we

  • Think about it: If you genetically engineer a baby, you've inserted non-natural genes, that is, inventions you can patent. So after the babies grow up, those people cannot have children without paying you for licensing (at the time the general public notices it, many years later, it's already too late). Maybe they'll even insert terminator genes, so that you cannot any more have offspring the normal way, unless you buy a (very expensive) special "medicine" which re-activates the genes needed for production

  • Oblig Shakespeare (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stevegee58 (1179505) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:51AM (#41035353) Journal
    O brave new world
    that has such people in't.
  • by rgbrenner (317308) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:00AM (#41035405)

    This sounds like an incredibly great idea, that I'm sure will have no down sides.

    I mean, if we weed out violence, that can only be a good thing. Nice docile people who won't put up any kind of fight. What could go wrong with that?

    Also, aren't mental illness and creativity linked?
    https://www.google.com/search?q=creativity+mental+illness [google.com]

    So if you weed out schizophrenia, for example, to create a superior being.. you could simply be creating non-creative people, who will never invent anything new.

    Honestly, we don't understand the human mind and how it works... how can we choose what human attributes are safe to discard?

  • The title suggests genetic engineering, but the article in fact talks about selection: you don't build a child to be sure he won't become an alcoholist, you discard him if the tests say that he could grow into an alcoholist.
    How that would be realized? En masse switching to in vitro fecundation? Widening of the reasons for which you can have a therapeutic abortion?

  • Let evolution handle the details like weeding out bad genes. With the exception of weeding out genes that make someone unable to survive to adulthood. When we start taking a proactive roll in minor stuff like personality then we start down a road to eliminate genetic diversity not based on one actually being better or not but being based on our perception. Evolution might be slower but it's less likely to give advantages based on Fair Skin, Blond Hair and Blue Eyes, and if it did it doesn't do it so it s
  • Just like I believe that we will get cybernetically enhanced I also think genetic modifications will happen. In the beginning probably just modifications of somatic cells like in gene therapy. For example, they have already demonstrated that green-red color blindness in male macaques can be cured by gene therapy. Bevause of this it is likely that the same technique could be used on adult humans to get the UV vision of birds. When this is common the next logical step is germline modifications... I think this
  • And what if by "curing" their alcoholism via genetic engineering you turn them into a raging psychopath? This is eugenics, plain and simple, and anyone who thinks it's a good idea really needs to be genetically modified to raise their IQ above 10.

  • This is never news (Score:4, Informative)

    by rebelwarlock (1319465) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:12AM (#41035489)
    Can we stop pretending that "a guy said something" is news? Who cares if some shmuck has an opinion? It might as well be me saying the same thing, or the opposite, for all it matters.
  • by Hatta (162192) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:17AM (#41035509) Journal

    Screening out harmful genes is not genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is splicing, or mutating genes. What he is talking about is just a selection process.

    Does anyone really think it's a bad idea to screen out the gene for Huntingtons? There's absolutely no reason any child today has to be born with Huntingtons, an incredibly miserable way to die as a chile. I'd say that screening for Huntingtons is such a serious moral obligation, that failing to do so should be criminal.

    If that's OK, it's just a discussion of how much selection we should be doing, not whether we do it. Actual genetic engineering is a whole different story.

  • I love the idea... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:22AM (#41035543) Journal

    "I wish that all of mankind would give up it's warlike ways and the Earth would become a society of pacifists. That way, I could take it over with a butter knife."

    -Dogbert.

  • by JOrgePeixoto (853808) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @08:23AM (#41035551) Journal

    This proposal has horrible intrinsic moral problems. And think about the societal consequences.

    Parents with a good moral sense would not engineer their babies.
    However, selfish and immoral parents would do it. Thus they could create a strong, intelligent, long-lived baby, who they would raise in an environment of selfishness and immorality.
    Rinse and repeat. After a few generations, you have divided society in two classes: one upper, dominating class consisting of strong, intelligent, but selfish and immoral beings (who would no longer be even _humans_), and one lower class consisting of naturals.

    This is a freaking dystopia.

    The scary part is that this gentleman is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics! I fear for the future.

  • by doug141 (863552) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:01AM (#41035801)
    The position of CEO selects FOR psychopathy. "Bad" traits like lack of empathy, lying and cheating are really just those traits that benefit the individual over society. "Good" traits are the traits that benefit the group. This guy isn't doing it for the individual children. He wants to be protected from your individual children. He's doing it for him.
  • by pubwvj (1045960) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:43AM (#41036127)

    creating so-called designer babies could be considered a 'moral obligation' as it makes them grow up into 'ethically better children'

    Ethics is a matter of opinion and are not universal. Diversity is key to survival. Don't go the way of the Borg.

    screen out personality flaws in their children such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence as it means they will then be less likely to harm themselves and others.

    Bummer about accidentally weeding out creativity and genius in the process. That professor has a lot to learn from the factory farming industry that made all sorts of mistakes with breeding in pigs, cattle and poultry, accidentally creating inferior genetic lines and losing important behavioral traits. We don't know enough to start messing with 'designer' babies.

    This falls in the really, really, really bad idea category as in, the late humanity that bred itself to extinction.

  • by supercrisp (936036) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @10:27AM (#41036427)
    Has this ethicist seen it?
  • by Tom (822) on Sunday August 19, 2012 @09:22AM (#41045387) Homepage Journal

    I'm going to draw a lot of flack here, but I strongly believe that for many (not all) decision regarding future human beings, the parent are the last ones who should decide. Simple truth of the matter is that nobody is further away from objective evaluation than hormone-swamped people with built-in motherly and fatherly love.

    Look at disabled children brought into the world with full knowledge of their genetic defects and severe consequences for their entire lives. There is no rational explanation for allowing that to happen, all the explanations are irrational: Either religion ("do not interfere with gods mysterious ways") or psycho-babble ("but it is our child and we'll love it no matter how it is").
    There are some conditions where I consider it cruel to bringt that child into the world. It will be suffering its entire life. Abort it and make a new one if you are a loving parent.

    Now TFA simply extends that to psychological, etc. defects. That's a bit SciFi and a bit nonsense because on most of those we do not yet know how much and what effect precisely the genetic component plays. But imagine it works, at least for some. What's the ethical consequences? I don't have a full answer, but I do have first-hand experience with someone mentally ill. Not genetically caused in this case, but for the thought-experiment assuming it would were. I must honestly say that I'm not sure. The amount of pain and suffering caused to both the ill one and everyone close was tremendous and long-term. I can not imagine any ethically defensible argument to abstain from prevent such things to happen, except that the actions required would be even worse. That certainly is true for murder, but then we're back at the irrational arguments where abortion and murder are equated, which rests on irrational definitions of life, personality and entity/beings.

    And before you hit me with a reply, keep in mind that common sense is what tells us that the world is flat. Don't make "it feels wrong" an argument, because it isn't. Not in either direction - slavery or force marriages of very young girls didn't feel wrong for most of human history. Saying that your imaginary friend actually is imaginary, but not much of a friend, on the other hand, did.

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