Designer Babies and Stepford Wives

A friend of mine passed this link on to me, and asked me to comment:

Stepford Comes to the 21st Century: Preventing ‘Masculinity’ in Females by Matt Kelly, author of a blog called “Tranifesto“.

In this article, Kelly describes an in-vitro medical procedure that would prevent female children from developing masculine behavioral qualities. Kelly compares it to the case of The Stepford Wives; I think that comparison is a bit of an exaggeration, but nonetheless this procedure does raise some serious moral dilemmas.

Kelly claims that the treatment confirms patriarchal and hetero-normative values, and oppresses LGBT culture, and is therefore immoral. He also poses a rhetorical question near the end of his piece, concerning how the treatment might reduce diversity in humanity’s gene pool.

But I think this is only a specific (albeit dramatic) example of a more general case of what might be called “creating designer babies”, in which parents chemically and/or genetically determine what their child’s potentials and predispositions will be.

Designing one’s children like that is probably ethically acceptable in the case of preventing certain diseases. Children really are better off without Huntington’s, or Tay-Sachs. Their caregivers, and the medical establishment in the country where they live, are better off too, as they are less burdened.

But there’s a sliding scale here, and a spectrum of values. And as you go along its length, some medical traits blend into social, cultural, or psychological traits, which can be manipulated in a similar way, either to avoid something regarded as a liability, or to acquire something regarded as an asset. A child might be manipulated so that it will be taller, or will be better at sports, for instance.

Now it might be easy to see the difference between being born with a disposition for heart murmurs, and being born a woman with a disposition for tomboyish behaviour. One is clearly a medical condition; the other, clearly, is not.

But there are lots of shades of grey in between, where it’s harder to see the difference between a truly medical condition, and a cultural or psychological trait that could be advantageously manipulated with medical science.

Deafness is an example. Most people believe that children are better off with normal hearing. It seems objectively obvious that a deaf person is physically disabled. Yet some people who happen to be deaf believe that deafness is a culture, and not a disability. There are activists who are radically opposed to efforts to eliminate deafness on the grounds that it might make it impossible for them to perpetuate their unique culture, and hence a form of oppression.

Kelly’s argument is that some gender-identified behaviour traits are being treated like medical traits, when they probably shouldn’t be. But I think the real problem is much deeper than a problem about gender identity. And I think the oppression angle is perhaps not the true core of the problem either. A more serious issue is at work here, which has to do with identity in general. But gender identity is an issue so intimate and personal that critical thinking in its field tends to make people passionate and angry, and quick to accuse someone of oppressing them.

Here’s what I think is really at stake. Parents and doctors, wanting what they think is best for the child, will do what they think is in the child’s interest. One way to do that is to chemically and/or genetically manipulate the zygote or the foetus, to favour some traits or to suppress others. But aside from a few clear-cut cases of disease prevention, what parents and doctors are really doing is designing a child who will fit their own interests.

To explain further: medically manipulating a child’s potentials and dispositions effectively removes much of the “surprise” of parenting, such that the child does not grow into unexpected potentials and dispositions. Not that the child grows into someone else’s identity. The child still grows into his or her own identity. But that identity is other than what it would have been, had the medical manipulation not been done. It is an identity (well, to be specific, it’s a body of potentials and dispositions) deliberately chosen by the parents, and which, presumably, the parents want.

Having identified what is actually at stake in principle, now we can see the deep questions more clearly.

Question 1: Is it right or wrong for parents and doctors to determine a child’s identity, and thus to shape a child in the image of their values?

Question 2: If the answer to Q.1 is: “It’s wrong”, then might it also be wrong to “design” the child in a non-medical way, for instance by giving the child religion?

Question 3: Should people accept a certain amount of ignorance concerning who their children will become? And if so, why?

Question 4: Do we “oppress” a child by designing his or her potentials this way? Do we prevent the child from becoming truly “herself?” Presumably, if the effort is successful, the child won’t know the difference, and would have the same chance of a happy life as he or she would otherwise have had, all other things being equal. The answer to Q.4 is almost certainly “no”. Remember your Non-Identity Problem! But this leads to:

Question 5: A designer child would presumably not join a subculture of people who have the traits that were medically suppressed. So, do we oppress a group or a subculture in our wider society by removing from some children the physical, psychological, or genetic traits needed for membership in that group? And might a culture-affecting version of the Non-Identity Problem indicate that our answer here should be “no” as well? But if the answer is “yes”, then exactly who is doing the oppressing?

Question 6: Do we “blame the culture”, as Kelly says? And what exactly does that mean?

Question 7: The members of such a group probably have an interest in seeing their group continue to exist, with as much freedom as possible. But are parents under an obligation to perpetuate a group that their children might some day join? Is anyone obliged to perpetuate a group whose values they do not share?

Question 8: And the deepest of the relevant questions is, What kind of people should there be?

Postscript: here’s a great book that addresses that very question, by English philosopher Jonathan Glover, and you can download the whole thing in PDF for free. I met him once, and found him very knowledgeable and personally charming.

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One Response to Designer Babies and Stepford Wives

  1. Tim says:

    I have personally vowed not to reproduce until I can have “designer” children. Of course, I have suffered from a chronic pain disease for nearly my entire life, which both of my parents, and my brother suffer from. We don’t know for sure that it is genetic (as a family, there has been ample opportunity for the same non-genetic factor to effect all of us). I assume that it is a genetic risk predisposition, and even if the disease has to be precipitated by some non-genetic event, it is still exists as a potentiality in our (and my) genetics.

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