Today it is possible to create designer babies – either by testing embryos, using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or fetuses, using prenatal testing.

Children of the future. Photo: Thinkstock

Legislation and National Health and Medical Research guidelines restrict the use of these techniques to testing for the presence of diseases.

Sex selection and testing for non-disease characteristics, like intelligence, empathy, altruism, etc. are not allowed. That is, testing for diseases and disorders is ok; creating designer babies is not.

The targets of the Nazi and other eugenic programs, widely employed at the time in the United States and Europe, were people with intellectual disability, the poor and criminals.

The Nazis would have fully approved of the current system of eugenics, which focuses on diseases, including genetic disorders which cause intellectual disability like Down Syndrome and Fragile X syndrome.

One disability activist once said to me, “When you say it is ok to abort a baby or an embryo with a disability, but not ok to abort a ‘normal baby’, you are saying that lives with disability are less deserving of respect, or have lower moral status. When you allow abortion for disability, but not for sex selection, you are saying that people with disability have less of a right to life.”

There is some truth to this. If either the embryo or the fetus has a moral status – then it would be wrong to kill either, whether or not a disability is present. If the embryo or fetus does not have a moral status, it should be permissible to destroy an embryo or abort a fetus for any reason.

In this way, paradoxically, allowing testing for diseases, but not for other genes, is eugenic in objectionable ways.

Testing for some characteristic, like intelligence or sex, is sometimes said to send a message that people who lack that characteristic have lives which are less valuable, of lower status, or less deserving of respect. Selecting for a male sends the message that females are less valuable.

But we should treat all people equally, regardless of race, sex or disability. So genetic testing is seen to send the wrong message about the equality of people.

However, the same is sometimes said about testing for disease. Testing for cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome is said to send the message that such lives are less valuable, that those people are of lower status.

This is deeply mistaken. To say that a disease is bad is not to say that a person with that disease is less equal or bad in some way. The problem is some people identify with their disease, disorder or some other characteristic about themselves, like sex.

But we are all individual people, deserving of equal respect, regardless of features about ourselves. To say that X is bad, or not desired by me, is not say that John or Julie with X has few rights. Selecting embryos for certain characteristics or treating diseases are both entirely independent of the equality of persons.

The last common objection to creating designer babies is that it will have bad social effects. This is easiest to see in the case of sex selection, where sex selection has seriously disturbed the sex ratio in parts of India and China.

I personally think that social reasons can provide a justification for interfering in liberty of reproduction. Massive overpopulation would be a reason to restrict fertility. People should not be having ten children today, as they did in the past.

But it is important to recognize that this is one of the objections that were laid at the door of the Nazi eugenics program: that it tried to use restrictions on reproduction (and killing) to bring about a certain race (the Aryan race).

To place restrictions on the freedom of reproduction for social purposes requires that we really be aiming at some uncontroversially good social purpose (not the Aryan race), that the restriction is necessary to achieve that purpose, and that there is no less liberty-restricting policy that could achieve that purpose.

Bans on the use of genetic testing for non-disease states fail this test. Consider two examples. There is no reason that a total ban on sex selection is necessary in Australia to maintain a roughly even sex ratio. The sex ratio could be monitored, sex selection could be allowed only for females or only for family balancing (having a child of the opposite sex to existing children). All three of these policies would preserve the sex ratio, while allowing sex selection.

Or consider more controversially, future tests for intelligence, empathy, etc. One of the major objections to this is that diversity is necessary for social functioning. We need a spread of intelligence, the argument goes, to fill all jobs. Or we need a certain number of psychopaths in the population (though I never really understood for what - ruining companies?)

These are incredibly controversial claims and a poor basis for restricting the liberty of people to access genetic tests.

Regulation of genetic testing to bring about social goals is controversial and can, in a limited number of circumstances, be justified. But it should only rarely constrain the liberty of couples to access the widest range of tests and knowledge in making decisions about reproduction.

The current restrictions on genetic testing, allowing embryos to be tested only for the purpose of detecting diseases, are liberty-restricting, objectionably eugenic and immoral.

Paradoxically, Australia is much closer to Nazi eugenics by only allowing testing of embryos for diseases than it would be if it lifted the ban on tests for non-disease characteristics, like sex, intelligence, empathy, altruism and so on.

Should we decide what breed of humans to create? Some people believe that children are a gift, of God or Nature, and that we should not interfere in human nature.

Most people implicitly reject this view – we already routinely screen embryos and fetuses for diseases. In the case of genetic selection, the children who come to exist as a result of selection could have been chosen by chance.

And they have a reason to be grateful insofar as their lives are good. We should use the emerging knowledge from genetics to have not just healthier children, but children with better genes. We should give chance a helping hand.

Julian Savulescu is Sir Louis Matheson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Monash University and Chair in Practical Ethics at University of Oxford. He will appear on SBS’s Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on SBS ONE.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST

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103 comments

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    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      05:09am | 09/10/12

      An embryo or fetus has no moral status whatsoever. Until it can sustain existence outside the human body, it is a parasite, nothing more.

    • Joan says:

      06:49am | 09/10/12

      A parasite? - sounds like your mental processes haven’t developed beyond that `parasite`.

    • Tim says:

      06:49am | 09/10/12

      A baby can’t sustain its own existense without assistance either. What’s so special about being outside of the womb?

    • FINK says:

      06:56am | 09/10/12

      “sustain existence outside the human body, it is a parasite, nothing more”
      It’s still a parasite for another 18 years once it’s outside the human body.

    • Bear says:

      07:00am | 09/10/12

      Perhaps we should drop you off in the middle of the wilderness and see how long you can sustain existence. People are rather dependent on each other: some just need more help than others.

    • Markus says:

      07:35am | 09/10/12

      @FINK, given that 40% of families in this country do not pay any net tax, one has to query when one stops being a parasite.

    • FINK says:

      08:04am | 09/10/12

      “What’s so special about being outside of the womb?”
      @Tim,
      So true. A guy spends 9 months trying to get out and the rest of his life trying to get back in.

    • Rachel says:

      08:32am | 09/10/12

      @Shane From Melbourne
      I know!  I always get annoyed at women complaining about having a miscarriage, and how traumatic it is.  I mean I know it’s disappointing, but it was disappointing when my car broke down last week.  I wouldn’t get upset if a tapeworm inside my body died.  I mean it’s just a parasite . . . . .

    • Bertrand says:

      09:01am | 09/10/12

      @Markus - a completely disingenuous statistic… people may pay not net income tax, but pay tax in other ways, such as through GST.

      Not to mention that the lowest 40% of income earners contribute to society in other ways. I’m sure if all the cleaners, waitresses, childcare workers and cab drivers disappeared tomorrow society would feel the very real negative impacts caused by their absence.

    • Lill says:

      09:04am | 09/10/12

      A fetus meets all of the scientific criteria for being a parasite. Most people don’t think of it that way as shown by the replies here but you can’t change the fact that it sucks nutrients etc from it’s host without giving anything in return while in utero.

    • Tim says:

      09:49am | 09/10/12

      Betrand,
      “I’m sure if all the cleaners, waitresses, childcare workers and cab drivers disappeared tomorrow society would feel the very real negative impacts caused by their absence. “

      Talk about disingenuous. Sure, these people perform necessary tasks but we’re not just talking about these people and not all of these people would fit into the category Marcus was talking about.

      Why should 40% (and I think Marcus is lowballing it, last I read it was ~45% and growing) receive more in government benefits than they pay in income tax?

      Surely that’s a sign that our tax base is too small and shrinking. Middle class welfare is a bane of our society.

    • serenity says:

      10:03am | 09/10/12

      Your comment is disgusting,as are the replies to you that I have read. Im hoping you realise that the real parasite is you. And @ rachel you have no idea what it would be like to miscarry a fetus 6 months into a pregnancy. After feeling a human life kicking inside you after planning a birth and getting a nursery ready picking a name. Planning a whole life that gets taken away. You make me sick your immature go back to school and grow up. And start from kindy its in your best interests.

    • Markus says:

      10:05am | 09/10/12

      @Bertrand, I actually suspect that a large portion of that number is comprised of dual-income middle class families who are receiving every government subsidy known to man, as opposed to lower income earners.

    • Tolomy says:

      10:58am | 09/10/12

      @Rachel, that is a seriosuly cruel comment and clearly comes from a person who has never suffered a miscarriage.
      I can honestly not find appropriate word to describe the pity, sorrow and shame i feel towards you for that comment!!

    • Bertrand says:

      11:35am | 09/10/12

      @Tim : where did I ever say I support middle class welfare or that I necessarily think that it’s a good thing so many people get more in government benefits then they pay in tax? All I said is that people pay tax in other ways than income tax and that people who do receive more in benefits than they pay in tax aren’t being parasitic because, for the most, people contribute to the overall health of a society and its economy in more ways than simply through income tax payments.

    • Kate says:

      12:56pm | 09/10/12

      I think you’ll find Rachel was being sarcastic… that’s how I interpreted it. Sensitive little souls on here…

    • JB says:

      03:19pm | 09/10/12

      @Kate, I don’t think @Rachael was being sarcastic and if she was it was in very bad taste.

    • leelee says:

      04:01pm | 09/10/12

      Rachel was clearly being sarcastic guys, chill out.

    • Dman says:

      04:49pm | 09/10/12

      Seems like a lot of people forgot to switch their sarcasm detectors on today. Rachel was obviously being sarcastic.

    • Super D says:

      05:52am | 09/10/12

      I’d support the family balancing argument for the third or subsequent child.

      I’d also support testing for, with a view to eliminating, gingervitus…

    • KH says:

      06:56am | 09/10/12

      And whilst you obviously think you are funny (you aren’t), therein lies the problem with genetic engineering - its all very fine and well to speak of eliminating diseases and promoting ‘good traits’, but I think we all know where this would inevitably go - vanity.  People would want fair skin, blue eyes, blonde hair or whatever this years ‘look’ is.

    • Michael says:

      07:30am | 09/10/12

      Yeah, im a big fan of the gingers myself. Have you seen the hair on that Michael from big Brother.

    • James says:

      07:56am | 09/10/12

      Always amusing in this political correct environment that saying anything about eliminating Africans or Asians would be reprehensible, but having a laugh at people with red hair is perfectly acceptable.

      Go to America and call someone in the ghetto the N word, see what happens.

    • Stuss says:

      06:36am | 09/10/12

      I understand your argument here, and agree that sex selection for the purpose of family balancing with the third or later pregnancy has merit. I think one point that you’ve failed to examine is that while some couples who have their unborn children tested for geneti abnormalities do abort if their foetus shows signs of them, many others undergo these tests so that they can be prepared if the tests come back positive, and continue with the pregnancy. I was in the latter category, although am lucky enough to have two happy, healthy, ‘normal’ boys. If any of the tests had come back with bad results, I think I would have continued, but would have been glad to have the opportunity to prepare for life with a child with a disability.

    • KH says:

      09:34am | 09/10/12

      Family balance does not have merit - it has nothing to do with balance, and everything to do with the selfish desire of one parent to have a ‘mini me’ to bring up.  If someone has only boys, someone else has only girls - the genders generally balance over a whole society if nature is left to do its thing.  Its when you start messing with things that you get out of balance - like China and India - well, any country where boys are more prized than girls (and that is usually the reason for the imbalance).

      If you are lucky enough to be able to have kids, you should be grateful for whatever you get.

    • Stuss says:

      11:38am | 09/10/12

      KH: I am absolutely grateful for my boys, and wouldn’t go down that route myself, but there are people out there who are desperate for one sex or the other, and maybe letting them choose the sex of their third child has merit. It may at least stop situations like the couple that has been reported previously, who were so desperate to have a little girl that they kept having babies until they got one. Ended up with about nine boys in the process.

      Yes, this is an isolated and extreme case, but I’m sure thee are others like it. Selfish? Yeah, maybe, but who are we to decide someone else’s motives.

      I just feel like the idea has some merit, and it might be worth examining the associated ethics and morals.

    • leelee says:

      04:04pm | 09/10/12

      KH having a child is selfish.

      Regardless of your desire for one sex or other (or no preference) you are having a child because you and your partner want children. Because YOU want children.

    • FINK says:

      06:55am | 09/10/12

      If they can remove the political gene and thus save the future world I am all for it.

    • subotic U. Genics says:

      08:04am | 09/10/12

      Hell yes. It worked for the National Socialist Party in Germany, right?

      Wait… what?

    • Tubesteak says:

      06:57am | 09/10/12

      I don’t believe in a genetic predisposition for things like intelligence or certain other abilities. These abilities are learned and worked on. Therefore, I think any such test would be a waste of time. Same as trying to create “smart” babies.

      I see no problem in testing for disease. I don’t think people would wish certain diseases on their worst enemies and if you could prevent someone living a life with said disease then you would do so. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Bertrand says:

      07:30am | 09/10/12

      I disagree, Tubesteak….. peope can certainly work harder to achieve their potential to a greater extent than others, but the potential to which people can achieve is limited by genetics. Some people are simply more innately intelligent than others, and no amount of hard work or positive upbringing will change that. Not to mention, people are intelligent in different ways. Some people have innate mathematical abilities, others are very good at abstract reasoning, others at music and so on. It’s silly to deny that some people are more naturally gifted than others.

    • Frank says:

      07:51am | 09/10/12

      There is a huge heritable factor in most of our behaviour, health and intelligence. While environmental factors can influence these strongly they cannot make up the difference between two peoples genetic potential.

      Evolution isn’t just from the neck down, and being a genius like Steven Hawking isn’t just a case of studying hard.

    • Markus says:

      07:52am | 09/10/12

      There are definitely genetic traits that have the potential to give advantage in specific areas, but they are extremely overstated, and only really noticeable at the elite levels. Athletes are of course the most visible example.

      But it is definitely only potential, and without the self motivation and/or discipline to fully realise that potential, does not count for much.

    • Austin 3:16 says:

      08:10am | 09/10/12

      Hey Frank

      So why have we only heard of Steven Hawking - surely if his intelligence has a genetic basis we then the sciences should be dominated by Hawkings. In just about any field of endeavour, if genes were the key, you’d expect bloodlines to dominate. Sporting teams would have about 3 surnames as would the heads to most professions. But it don’t happen.

    • Markus says:

      09:07am | 09/10/12

      @Austin 3:16, if we lived in a society where only the best and brightest were allowed to pass on their genetic line, you would indeed see that.
      Monogamy kinda kills that concept.

      ‘So why have we only heard of Steven Hawking’
      Ignorance?

    • Tubesteak says:

      09:28am | 09/10/12

      Bertrand
      I really don’t see how that can be proven. I think nurture plays a far greater role in determining life outcomes. I don’t think there can even be a genetic predisposition to intelligence. There are certain things that can happen from very early on where parents nurture and foster their baby’s ability and this continues throughout the rest of their life in a sort of reinforcing manner. Same with people with the opposite. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers really showed this. Most elite athletes are first-born males. They were also bigger than a lot of their classmates so they were picked and favoured more in sports. The more they were picked and favoured the more this reinforced their desire and their ability. Eventually, it has been shown that it requires about 10,000 hours of practice to master something. What pushes someone into these hours of practice is a factor of nurturing from early on. This reinforces the genetics argument but looking into it deeper shows it’s really just favouritism and practice.

      Frank
      It may surprise you to learn that Stephen Hawking has a lower IQ than some porn stars and actors. I’ll find it at lunch time but I think Steve Martin has a higher IQ than Hawking. Hawking made his name in his field and people think that he’s well beyond everyone else because of that field. In fact, his IQ is about 160 and there are people with an IQ higher than that.

    • Colin says:

      09:38am | 09/10/12

      Well, despite the fact that believing or not believing in something has no effect on the facts, Tubesteak, I would suggest that you re-examine the empirical evidence for this; it is widely accepted that a predisposition to higher intelligence or other abilities is built right into the genes…

    • Bertrand says:

      10:08am | 09/10/12

      I guess we will have to agree to disagree Tubesteak. The nature or nurture argument will never be settled definitively, but I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle; we are born with certain personality types and talents in certain areas and then our life experiences and individual choices shape us into who we are.

      As such there would be naturally talented people who never realise their potential and other people who succeed through sheer grit and determination.

      In one of my degrees I majored in developmental psychology (simply because I find the subject matter fascinating) and it was pretty clear that some children learn much more easily than others ; some young children can learn to read simply by osmosis and others struggle, despite huge amounts of extra help. Some of this could be pit down to upbringing, but not all. If it was purely nurture that affected intelligence you would never see people from families that actively encourage intellectual pursuits experience learning difficulties, and that’s simply not the case.

    • Tubesteak says:

      11:48am | 09/10/12

      Colin
      That’s the problem. There is no conclusive empirical evidence. I’m not eve sure there could be.

      Bertrand
      Happy to agree to disagree. I think by the time those kids started to learn to read they were already falling on the nurture side of things as it had more hold on them by then.

      As for the Stephen Hawking debate I found some interesting comparisons here: http://thechive.com/2012/09/05/famous-people-with-the-highest-known-iqs-16-photos/
      Hawking IQ = 160
      Steve Martin IQ = 142 (ok got him mixed up with someone else)
      Asia Carrera porn star with IQ of 156. Very close to Hawking
      Dolph Lundgren 160
      Tarantino 160
      Paul Allen 170
      James Woods 180 (must have gotten him mixed up with SM)

    • Markus says:

      12:16pm | 09/10/12

      “Dolph Lundgren 160”
      Also speaks four languages, masters in chemical engineering, 7th level black belt in karate, and is a drummer.

      If the proposed eugenics program ever does take off, I have an idea of where to start.

    • Elphaba says:

      12:59pm | 09/10/12

      @Markus and others, sorry, some of those facts are false.  On the Graham Norton show, Lungdren said he is not fluent in 5 languages (I know you said 4, but apparently, 5 is a number often cited).  He speaks Swedish, English and Spanish, with a smattering of a few others.  Danish actress Connie Nielsen speaks 7 languages, with a bit of Spanish - no idea what her IQ is though.

      Apparently, other facts such as his weight and height have been exaggerated too.  He might be lying, but I’ll take it that he has no reason to hide it and is speaking the truth.

    • Frank says:

      01:07pm | 09/10/12

      @Tubesteak

      What is exactly your point though? Don’t get too hung up on Hawking as it was just an example of an intelligent person, of which there are plenty.

      We’re talking genetic potential here, not saying that high IQ immediately leads to success. Of course there are a variety of factors such as motivation and other environmental issues. Moreover, the point I have tried to make is that two individuals with two different genetic potentials but similar environment will have different outcomes based not only on their genetic disposition towards behaviors, but also in their ability.

      This is verified by twin adoption and interracial adoption studies.

      @Markus

      I think Dolph is a result of the German lebensborn program!

    • Tim says:

      01:09pm | 09/10/12

      Marcus,
      yeah but Jean Claude Van Damme was the better universal soldier.

    • Bear says:

      07:07am | 09/10/12

      “This is deeply mistaken. To say that a disease is bad is not to say that a person with that disease is less equal or bad in some way.”

      The problem is that genetic testing identifies the person as the disease, and consequently the life is ended. That is what is going on here.

      It is disingenuous to argue that you are not against people with genetic variation but advocate that embryos/fetuses/babies who are found to have this variation should not be born and screened out of our society.

    • Proud Mum says:

      09:26am | 09/10/12

      I have a beautiful daughter who is intelligent and articulate. She has a genetic disorder which causes her to break bones and dislocate joints easily. She has had years of pain and will have enormous problems with arthritis , starting from her early 30’s.

      I have huge hopes that she will have access to selective IVF, so that she can have her own beautiful babies who will not suffer from a lifetime of pain.

    • NESLIHAN KUROSAWA says:

      07:28am | 09/10/12

      Hi Julian,

      As far as I can tell gender selection is widely practiced in some overly populated nations such as China, India and some parts of the Middle East Region.  And there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this very idea because just like you suggested we simply don’t want parents wishing to have a son to end up with so many baby girls that they can’t afford to feed in the first place! Testing for genetic disorders is also very acceptable but can we actually guarantee that it is only going to stop at that?

      Also another question that I have for you today is that “who says that the very poor will have access to this latest technology of creating designer babies” anyway?  At this stage I am only guessing that there should be a very high price tag for all this convenience of choosing the almost perfect baby, right?  However, when it comes to achieving perfect levels of intelligence, good looks, height and bone structure wise, is that also not in our genetic make up?  So after finding the almost perfect partners with lots of money, we are on our way to have the carefully chosen, designed and tested perfect babies!  Kind regards.

    • subotic says:

      08:07am | 09/10/12

      Ah yes, “China, India and some parts of the Middle East Region”. Those classic, classic examples of righteous ways of thinking.

      Is that a female baby I see there?

      Mind. Boggling….

    • marley says:

      07:31am | 09/10/12

      This is nonsense. This whole article is based on the flimsiest of understandings about what the state of genetics.  Genetic testing for altruism and empathy?  Give me a break.

      Intelligence, to take just one example, is as much a product of environment and early upbringing as of genetics.  All the gene testing in the world isn’t going to change that.  And so, is the author suggesting not letting people in disadvantaged circumstances breed?  That might make some sort of sense, but it hardly stands as an argument in ethics. slightly more females than males born - so if every family is allowed one child of each sex, you’ve already screwed up the natural balance. 

      As for the argument that it is immoral to restrict gene testing to disease, well, personally, I see a huge ethical difference between gene testing to prevent the birth of a child who live a lifetime of disease or disability, and testing to prevent the birth of a child who will live a lifetime as a girl or a redhead or a bogan.


      And again, you don’t ask the challenge from the last time you wrote a pageful of similar nonsense:  what exactly is a “better gene?”

    • Gox says:

      07:50am | 09/10/12

      Gattaca anyone?

      Seriously though, this is a complex and topical issue that requires examination.  The vanity issue is a serious one. Gender balancing and screening for serious diseases is all well and good, but do you think you could justify terminating a pregnancy for not having blue eyes? Then again, this could be a slippery slope argument, how many people are realistically that vain and wasteful?

      @Tubesteak- I agree. Genetic predispositions only take you so far, and frequently have no bearing on what a person becomes. Individuals are constantly reacting to external stimuli, changing and developing who they will/ can become.

    • Onlooker says:

      08:03am | 09/10/12

      If they are going to genetically engineer anyone can I put in a request to leave out the pedophile gene? I can’t see any valid use for them being here, they just destroy lives

    • Modern Primitive says:

      08:07am | 09/10/12

      I dont see any problem with screening for disease at all. If you went to the trouble of getting IVF in the first place I doubt you’d pick the embryo with a defect over a healthy one. It’s not a question about which life is worth more, its about quality of life.

      @ kh, I don’t see a problem with people selecting for superficial traits like blonde eyes and blue hair either, but I would have an issue with people selecting for personality traits.

    • Elphaba says:

      08:09am | 09/10/12

      Personally, if I knew I carried a gene that would mean my child would live a shortened lifespan with debilitating pain and disability (Huntington’s Disease springs to mind), then I would definitely want all my embryos screened to ensure I didn’t pass it on.

      I think the ‘family balance’ argument is a bit of a fallacy.  Rest assured, if all you’re popping out is boys, then somewhere else, someone is popping out all girls. However, if someone desperately wants a particular sex, I’m not going to tell them they can’t.

    • Rebecca says:

      09:11am | 09/10/12

      Those were my thoughts exactly. My partner and I both have/had epilepsy (a hereditary disease), so the idea of whether it’s moral to bring children into this world is something I worry about. I like the idea of ensuring a healthy baby who won’t have to suffer with the disease.
      It doesn’t mean I don’t value people with epilepsy - saying that would mean I don’t value my own life. It simply means that it would be cruel to bring someone into the world knowing that they will suffer.

    • Elphaba says:

      10:10am | 09/10/12

      @Rebecca, absolutely. It would break my heart to see my child in chronic, unrelenting pain.  It would compromise my ability to effectively parent that child, because I would probably spend the bulk of my time crying in the foetal position.

      That’s not being a good parent.  It’s hard enough, and I simply don’t find the argument ‘any life is a good life’ compelling enough.

    • Kika says:

      12:35pm | 09/10/12

      I agree with you Rebecca. That would be on my mind as well. My family carries a less serious but potentially fatal disease called Haemochromatosis where the body can’t rid itself of iron and stockpiles it. It’s a genetic trait stemming from what they believe was 1 ancestor back 60 generations ago in Celtic Britain who adapted to the iron poor diet. My Mum was suffering greatly before her diagnosis. She has the disease - I am a carrier. My husband has no chance of being a carrier thanks to being Asian so I am relieved knowing that my child won’t have the disease but may still have a chance of being a carrier.

    • Robinoz says:

      08:12am | 09/10/12

      I read an interesting item a few months ago about how we (humankind) have changed the evolutionary route we take because of medical and scientific intervention. Arguments about whether we should endeavour to manipulate genes to rid diseases and improve human beings of the future are, as the article indicates above, very controversial.  One day however, it will be normal to engineer out undesirable characteristics of future humans and perhaps take over part of the role of evolution that focuses solely on survival of the fittest. It’s an interesting topic and one that will be around forever. Well before then, we will have used studies with lizards to manipulate the growth of lost limbs.

    • Bertrand says:

      09:05am | 09/10/12

      @Robinoz: “I read an interesting item a few months ago about how we (humankind) have changed the evolutionary route we take because of medical and scientific intervention.”

      I read a book on a similar topic, but it argued that although this is true in rich Western societies, it is not true overall. The majority of the world’s population is still very exposed to evolutionary pressures. Child mortality rates in the developing world highlight this fact.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      11:37am | 09/10/12

      you’re both mixing your metaphors. ‘Science will take over the role of evolution’. I could write a book-length essay on what is wrong with this claim. However, because it would be dull and pointless, I will forbear smile

    • Bernd Wechner says:

      08:43am | 09/10/12

      “If the embryo or fetus does not have a moral status, it should be permissible to destroy an embryo or abort a fetus for any reason.”

      With this I disagree. Indeed the debate is often centred upon the question of when a sperm and ovary become a human being meritorious of our respect and human rights. One camp understandably suggests it is at the point of conception, another camp far less understandably that it is at the point of birth and a probably majority of moderate and critical thinkers arguing it is somewhere in between, but uncomfortable pinpointing just when.

      But the black and white picture you paint here simply holds little merit to my mind. If it is agreed that an embryo has no moral status or rights, this is not the same as nor a tacit approval of destroying it for any reason.

      A house for example has no moral status nor rights, and yet it would be a far cry to suggest that we should permit its destruction for any reason. It turns out that broad consensus will likely surround some reasons being acceptable and others not.

      And I see no obvious difference why one thing lacking moral status and right’s should differ from another.

      There are differences of course based on all sort of complex value. For example a piece of popcorn perhaps also has no moral value or rights, but I suspect that indeed your premise that any reason is OK for destroying it would hold. And I suspect the reason is, few people place much value in a piece of popcorn. In a house we place great value however, or in a bridge, or high-rise building.

      And so too regardless of whether you ascribe moral status or rights to an embryo you can still ascribe it with value. And I would find that very understandable. It represents if not a human being, most will agree, at least (and many would arugu much more)  it has the potential to be a human being and this represents enormous value.

    • D2EARTH says:

      09:06am | 09/10/12

      Whats wrong with genetically engineering to create only beautiful fit people?

      I’m not saying there is anything wrong with you ugly fat people but be honest, if you had the chance wouldnt you want to be fitter, healtheir and more attractive?

      Couldn’t think of anything better.

    • FINK says:

      09:27am | 09/10/12

      Yes, but who would we then poke fun at.

    • Black Dynamite says:

      09:48am | 09/10/12

      Yes I couldn’t think of anything better than genetically cleansing the population so that every person would be a fit blonde haired blue eyed looker, what a master race we would be!

      BD

    • Bho Ghan-Pryde says:

      11:33am | 09/10/12

      Black Dynamite, I would suggest it would not make any difference to your decendents if they were genetically engineered to be that way if they were happy with it. They would probably look back on your concerns as somewhat quaint at best. Maybe they will choose to be purple with green spots and 5 metres tall if that is what makes them happy. The thing is it would be a choice and modern concerns and fixations on race and color would mean nothing.

    • Bho Ghan-Pryde says:

      09:52am | 09/10/12

      In science if it can happen it will happen. You can make as many laws as you like but when something as desirable as genetic engineering is possible then it will happen and all the laws in the world won’t stop it. The only real question is what direction it will take as it becomes more common.

    • OzTrucker says:

      09:54am | 09/10/12

      Just because we can does not mean we should.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      11:27am | 09/10/12

      in one short sentence you have summed up the ethical nuances more succinctly than the above confused ramblings of an Oxford academic. Excellent work OzTrucker.

    • Carol says:

      09:58am | 09/10/12

      ‘To say that a disease is bad is not to say that a person with that disease is less equal or bad in some way. The problem is some people identify with their disease, disorder or some other characteristic about themselves, like sex.’

      These are the breathtakingly entitled words of the ‘non-disordered’. If our only mode of eliminating Downs, for instance, is to eliminate the ‘bad’ ‘disorder’, the ‘non-bad’ fetus must go too. They are only separate in your disingenuous abstractions.

    • Colin says:

      10:19am | 09/10/12

      “Testing for some characteristic, like intelligence ...is sometimes said to send a message that people who lack that characteristic have lives which are less valuable…”

      Yes, this is true; they ARE less valuable - as human beings.

      Why do so many people have a problem with accepting this fact..? If we want a race of human beings best suited to purpose, and capable of being all that they can be as a life form, then we must eradicate the proclivities…it’s that simple, regardless of how unpalatable the less intelligent find it.

    • ur neighbourhood nazi says:

      12:09pm | 09/10/12

      Sieg heil, baby!

    • Colin says:

      12:21pm | 09/10/12

      Godwin’s Law. You lose.

    • Levi of Bris says:

      12:28pm | 09/10/12

      Colin, your logic is flawed. If you wanted a society of beings best suited to purpose, we should simply pour all of our time and money into researching robotics and AI.

      Machines of sufficient complexity and sophistication would be far better suited to ALL tasks than humans ever would. You could created task specific castes of robots and societal efficiency would be through the roof.

      Kind of makes all you “human progress” arguments irrelevant seeing as we would have to eliminate out imperfect selves in favor of machines to achieve your disease and genetic abnormality free utopia.

    • Colin says:

      12:46pm | 09/10/12

      @ Levi of Bris 12:28pm | 09/10/12

      “Colin, your logic is flawed. If you wanted a society of beings best suited to purpose, we should simply pour all of our time and money into researching robotics and AI.”

      That’s just plain silly. Robots and machines aren’t humans; they aren’t of our species. Why on Earth would I advocate such things when i am -s specifically - referring to the Human Gene Pool..? And you say MY logic is flawed..!

    • marley says:

      01:08pm | 09/10/12

      In my life, I’ve known people whose intelligence ranged from the very average to the genius level.  Oddly enough, I found many of those at the more modest end of the IQ scale to be the more valuable contributors to society - because IQ only measures one aspect of what it is to be human.  Things like integrity, tenacity, willpower, have as much to do with success as sheer IQ.

      And I’d go for anyone with a well developed sense of ethics over a psychopath with a genius IQ any day of the week.

    • ur neighbourhood nazi says:

      01:43pm | 09/10/12

      “Godwin’s Law. You lose.”

      Yes, don’t mention the war!  It offends us.

    • Eugenicists Unite! says:

      01:57pm | 09/10/12

      From the wiki:-

      “Godwin’s law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one’s opponent) with Nazis. The law and its corollaries would not apply to discussions covering known mainstays of Nazi Germany such as genocide, eugenics or racial superiority, nor, more debatably, to a discussion of other totalitarian regimes or ideologies, if that was the explicit topic of conversation, since a Nazi comparison in those circumstances may be appropriate, in effect committing the fallacist’s fallacy.”

    • Colin says:

      02:37pm | 09/10/12

      @ Eugenicists Unite!  01:57pm | 09/10/12

      You quoted Wikipedia…??!??!?

      Correction: YOU lose..!

    • pheelion says:

      03:13pm | 09/10/12

      Whose purpose exactly would that be?

    • Craig says:

      10:26am | 09/10/12

      Unfortunately, due to social engineering, humans have short-circuited normal evolutionary processes which would ensure our species remains adapted to the environment, improving key qualities over time.

      Therefore it is appropriate for us to take evolution into our own hands. In fact we already have started to - with artificial limbs now almost superior to natural ones, and recent revolutions in hearing and sight, artificial organs and other aids, not to mention the external brain, connected to a global hive mind, which most of us now carry (old-fashioned people call them ‘mobile phones’).

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with biologically - as well as mechanically - improving ourselves.

      We can’t rely on nature to do it for us, so we need to do it for ourselves.

      Note this doesn’t necessarily involve killing embryos and controlling who procreates, however it does involve seeking desirable characteristics, rewriting our genetics to improve it and promoting greater breeding by those with good and disease resistent genes.

      We require genetic diversity - it is what saves species from plagues - but we also need to take some responsibility for the future of our species.

    • Peter says:

      11:00am | 09/10/12

      I’d be curious to know whether the people living today who were born with significant genetic diseases would rather they had not been born at all.  I bet the answer would be a resounding “no”.  They are probably quite happy to have had a life and some may even (gasp) be proud of their contribution.  So who are we really benefiitting?  The parents and the rest of society.  It’s about us.  Not them.  So let’s just get that out on the table and be honest about it:  we are killing unborn babies with genetic impairments because we don’t want to have to deal with them.  That’s the plain truth.

    • Colin says:

      11:16am | 09/10/12

      @Peter 11:00am | 09/10/12

      “we are killing unborn babies with genetic impairments because we don’t want to have to deal with them.  That’s the plain truth….”

      And the problem with that is..?

    • KH says:

      11:29am | 09/10/12

      Wouldn’t it be more accurate to ask someone who only became disabled later?  I’m guessing they would have a very different perspective about living with disability, and whether or not they would prefer not to have it.  Someone born with an illness has no idea what their life could have been if they didn’t have it.  Of course they aren’t going to say they wish they hadn’t been born, nor would their families say that either. 

      Some people might be happy to give up their own life to look after someone else - well, great for them.  But a lot of people just couldn’t - and its not your place to judge them for being honest.  I see no problem with having a choice about it.

    • Disgruntled Goat says:

      12:12pm | 09/10/12

      People deserve the right to determine if they are going to be stuck with a special needs child or not, I know personally I could not cope some might say I am selfish but I know what my mental limits are and constantly caring for someone with downs or other debilitating conditions for the rest of my life would drain me mentally and physically to the point where I probably would abandon the child to some sort of establishment and many people would.

      For this reason I have really strong respect for carers and those parents who can handle this responsibility but that said no one deserves to be forced into a position when there is the NO option to terminate such a pregnancy.

      Eugenics is another topic again but I won’t bother getting into that!

    • Peter says:

      11:36am | 09/10/12

      @Colin, nothing, I guess, if you don’t give a shit about people’s lives other than your own.  Absolutely nothing.

    • Colin says:

      11:49am | 09/10/12

      @Peter 11:36am | 09/10/12

      So you would want to lumber yourself - probably for the rest of your life - with a progeny who is disabled because, somehow, this is the “Noble” thing to do..?

      It’s not about NOT giving a $hit - it’s about actually caring about wasting people’s lives and maintaining the integrity of the Gene Pool.

    • marley says:

      12:20pm | 09/10/12

      Maintaining the integrity of the gene pool?  Do you have the slightest understanding of what genetics is, of what mutations are?  The gene pool isn’t some static swamp, it’s an ever changing ocean of DNA, and it has no “integrity” or we’d all be australopithecines.

    • Lucy says:

      12:36pm | 09/10/12

      He probably doesn’t know what an Australopithecine is Marley…

    • Colin says:

      12:41pm | 09/10/12

      @marley 12:20pm | 09/10/12

      Save your pseudo-scientific, faux-intelligent imbroglio for lesser minds, Marley; the fact of the matter is that replicating genes within the pool that are harmful for the overall fitness of the species will have a deleterious effect on that pool.

      And as for your supposition that not including harmful gene sequences into the pool will keep it diverse and robust, that is just plain nonsense; there is more than enough genetic variation within the various individual permutations of NON-harmful types to maintain that integrity…

    • Scotchfinger says:

      12:42pm | 09/10/12

      save your breath marley, these good people seem to be confusing ‘natural selection’ with ‘evolution’. Also ‘teleological explanation’ with ‘directtional adaptation’. Tell ‘em to read a good popular science book instead. Stephen Jay Gould?

    • Scotchfinger says:

      01:14pm | 09/10/12

      ‘here is more than enough genetic variation within the various individual permutations of NON-harmful types to maintain that integrity’. Aah, like the sickle-cell hemoglobin gene and malaria…? And wasn’t the majority of DNA material considered to be ‘junk’ until fairly recently? You seem confident that disease pathogenesis is cut and dried.

    • Dman says:

      05:11pm | 09/10/12

      @Colin,
      “the fact of the matter is that replicating genes within the pool that are harmful for the overall fitness of the species will have a deleterious effect on that pool”.

      This would be true if disabled people reproduced at a comparable rate to that of able bodied people. What you’re failing to recognise is that disabled people actually do not reproduce as much as “normal” people do, for a variety of physical, social, intellectual, and emotional reasons. Indeed, the more severe the disability, the less likely they are to find a willing partner with whom to reproduce, and therefore the less likely that their genes will be replicated within the gene pool.

    • Swamp Thing says:

      12:29pm | 09/10/12

      Of course we should - but please only use genetic material from those born before about 1990….
      Real mean and women please - no more gutless - pc - wonders.

    • Levi of Bris says:

      12:34pm | 09/10/12

      Yes as a species we need to evolve and make progress.

      However I believe dispensing with empathy and compassion, which Colin and others above argue for in the form of eugenics and genetic screeing, would actually result in DEVOLUTION.

      Our emotions are what makes us human. We as a race have more than ample resources for looking after the sick and injured, that’s part of the reason Homo Sapiens were more successful than Homo Erectus. Our compassion for our sick increases our adaptability, forges closer human bonds, promotes co-operation.

      This argument in favor of genetic screening is just utter selfishness and laziness.

      If I were Colin, I’d hope I didn’t become a quadriplegic as the result of some unfortunate accident. Quadriplegics are less “valuable” to society according to him as they require constant care. I’m sure Colin would have no qualms with being eliminated if he lost the use of his arms and legs.

    • expat says:

      02:04pm | 09/10/12

      Emotions might make us human but they are also one of our weakest traits, certainly not our strongest. 

      Whilst we do have ample resources now, we may not have in the future, what happens then? Morals, empathy and compassion all go out the door as everyone switches to survival mode.

    • Kika says:

      12:42pm | 09/10/12

      I don’t actually think it’s that bad. Who wants their children to suffer? And more to the point some people are just not cut out to be parents at the best of times, let alone having the patience or resilience to care for a disabled child. I know of someone very close to me in my family who made the tough decision to adopt out her Down Syndrome son many many years ago and I stand by her 100%. She couldn’t have done it under the circumstances. I understand.

      And more to the point all parents do it on a subconcious level (if only it was thought about more!) We choose the people we copulate with for qualities we find desirable - why? Because we are ingrained to find them attractive so we can pass those genes onto our offspring. It’s nature. We are unlikely to have children we don’t find attractive or for some other pleasing quality so we make this decision already. Why not take it to another level and keep the gene pool progressing?

    • Colin says:

      12:50pm | 09/10/12

      @Scotchfinger 12:42pm | 09/10/12

      Speaking of pseudo-intellectuals; i was waiting for you to weigh-in to the debate, Scotchy…

      Please, go ahead - you and Marley - regale me with your vast and prolific knowledge of the Biological Sciences that you both learned from Reader’s Digest…I am bored and it would amuse me so.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      01:05pm | 09/10/12

      now @Colin, I am not pretending to be an expert, however I notice a lot of people use terms like ‘clean up the gene pool’ pretty loosely. What does the term actually mean? Do you know?

      PS I have not spent enough time in GP waiting rooms to be a Readers Digest expert wink

    • marley says:

      06:31pm | 09/10/12

      What is the Reader’s Digest?

    • Colin says:

      01:26pm | 09/10/12

      @Scotchfinger 01:05pm | 09/10/1

      i didn’t say, “Clean up’ the Gene Pool; I said don’t sully it.

      As for what it is - I would have thought your years of research would have uncovered that…or are you just trying to lure me in with an attempt at Socratic irony..? :-(

    • subotic jumps your shark says:

      02:59pm | 09/10/12

      There’s too many sharks in the gene pool….

    • Tim says:

      04:00pm | 09/10/12

      Colin,
      I thought someone of your vast intellectual capabilities would have discovered the reply button by now.

    • Dman says:

      05:15pm | 09/10/12

      +1 Tim

    • seniorcynic says:

      01:46pm | 09/10/12

      How is Nicholas Tonti-Fillippini travelling? Last I heard he had renal failure and refused to go on the transplant list. Thus he reckons every ones life except his is valuable. What a hippocrite.

 

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