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Will designer babies be the next fad? Will couples pore over catalogs to decide not just the sex of their next child, but how much to enhance her memory, or height, or temperament – even whether to take a chance on the new super-vision option derived from eagle genes? Will we see pre-natal genetic manipulation become so routine among the rich – but not, inevitably, the poor – that only the children of the rich will have any chance of success?

These are not the paranoid fantasies of luddite technophobes; they are the supposedly "visionary concepts" put forward by enthusiasts of human genetic engineering. They cloak their ideas in modern terms like "seizing control of our own evolution" and computer-derived metaphors (artificial chromosomes as updated software) but essentially their attitudes are an atavistic reversion to aristocracy as a social ideal, and it is high time that society stared at this abyss before falling unthinkingly – or being pushed – into it.

The announcement of the "first draft" of the human genome provides an excellent opportunity to raise the profound social and political issues that must be considered before anyone tries to manipulate our genetic inheritance. It is one thing to attempt to use gene-therapy techniques to cure disease (itself an issue whose technical difficulties and ethical dilemmas have been cruelly exposed since the death of Jesse Gelsinger last fall), quite another to think of changing the genetic make-up of our children. When we do that, not only do our children become genetically modified artifacts, but so do all of our descendants, forever.

Grotesque ideas like genetically modified babies are springing from the most respectable sources. A recent book, Engineering the Human Germline, arose from a symposium held at UCLA, featuring luminaries from all over the country, including the most famous advocate (though he dislikes the term), James Watson, the Nobel-Prize–winning co-discoverer of DNA, and the first Director of the Human Genome Project. Watson's focus is mostly medical, but his approach is reckless at best: "Some people are going to have to have some guts and try germline therapy without completely knowing that it's going to work," he has said. Watson also argues against any kind of government oversight: "If there's a terrible misuse and people are dying, then you can pass regulations ... I think it would be complete disaster to try and get an international agreement."

Here's the problem: Without public scrutiny, which means in the end laws, the best-case scenario, the most we could hope for, is one that permanently destroys our concept of what it is to be human, and with it all our aspirations to democracy, fairness and justice for all. No one pretends that more than a tiny fraction of Americans, let alone the 70% of humanity who live in the developing world, could afford enhancement treatments for their kids. IVF treatment alone can cost $30,000 and if you added in custom options the million-dollar baby might not be far off. The dreams of those techno-enthusiasts are more like nightmares to the starving.

This does not trouble the modern aristocrats, who see no need for their servants' children to have the same opportunities their own do, any more than plantation owners thought education important for share-croppers. "Natural children are only taught the basic skills they need to perform the kinds of tasks they'll encounter in the jobs available to members of their class," forecasts Princeton Professor Lee Silver in his terrifying prediction of a future in which the elite actually become a separate species.

Do these people know nothing of history? Our national story has been one of continual struggle away from colonialism and slavery and towards democracy and equal rights for all. The creation of genetically modified humans would represent a betrayal of the most affirming values of human existence. It would mean the end of our common humanity.

And that is if the technology even works. The end of the genome project (which is still some years away) is only the start of the much larger task of interpreting the data. Why would anyone even consider experimenting on humans?

Advocates say that these techniques are simply extrapolations of current practice. After all, amniocentesis and selective abortion have become common; if we routinely eliminate the unfit, why not alter embryos to make them more fit?

Because it's wrong. As wrong as love is right. That may not mean much to the self-described rationalists who parse morality into cost-benefit analysis, but most people are appalled by the prospect. Just as most people know that murder is wrong; we don't need tortured discussions about self-interest and social cohesion to understand that. There is an insidious tendency among the technophiles to claim that they and they alone are qualified to speak on issues arising out of technology. Not so. Social issues demand social solutions.

All babies are perfect. Remember that. "If scientists don't play God, who will?" Watson asked rhetorically in May. Let me suggest an answer: No one. Please.



June 2000