Gattaca Coming to a Doctor’s Office Near You

To be honest, the first time I watched the movie Gattaca, I thought it was one of the most boring movies I had ever watched. However, since then it has become one of my favorite sci-fi movies and I’ve watched it several times finding new nuances each time.

In the movie, genetically engineering your child is an option, you don’t have to do it. However, the local school won’t accept the un-engineered child because the insurance risk is too high; the better jobs, like engineer or astronaut, aren’t open to un-engineered persons because they’re deemed worthy of only doing menial labor; and what happens to the genetically engineered, “perfect” human when he suffers paralysis in a car accident and can no longer do the things he was programmed to do?

Too far-fetched to really happen? Not so. A new Telegraph article summarizes an article written by University of Oxford philosophy professor Julian Savulescu, who believes that we have a moral obligation to genetically engineer “better” people. The original article appears in the September issue of Reader’s Digest UK.

In the professor’s article, as partially reprinted in the Telegraph, he writes about how we should be screening for “personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence.” Because we can do this, he believes “that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children” because they will be “less likely to harm themselves and others.”

He continues (as reported in the Telegraph):

“If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring — rather than consigning them to the natural lottery — then we should.”

He said that unlike the eugenics movements, which fell out of favour when it was adopted by the Nazis, the system would be voluntary and allow parents to choose the characteristics of their children.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is still eugenics. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects (i.e. don’t let the undesirables have children), this is focusing on the positive aspects (i.e. let’s make sure everyone is has an “ethical” offspring). But the main unanswered question is: “Who decides which traits are desirable and which traits are not?”

And even though Savulescu says it should be voluntary, as we can see with the current HHS contraception mandate in the U.S., someone will eventually decide that it shouldn’t be voluntary and the government should force people to do its will. Sinful human nature being what it is eventually leads to this path. (Reference the conversation between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in Star Wars Episode II when they are in a field on Naboo discussing poliltics…Anakin thinks it would be okay to use the Force to make star systems get in line…sound familiar?)

The article continues:

“We’re routinely screening embryos and foetuses for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome, and there’s little public outcry,” he said.

“What’s more, few people protested at the decisions in the mid- 2000s to allow couples to test embryos for inherited bowel and breast cancer genes, and this pushes us a lot close to creating designer humans.”

Here’s my next question: “Who is responsible if a doctor tries to genetically engineer an undesirable trait out of a child but the child still develops that trait?” People are suing doctors and hospitals now for “wrongful birth” issues when a child is born with a genetic disease that the parents aren’t told about or weren’t caught in the genetic testing. What will happen in the future when someone says he will remove an undesirable trait and doesn’t do it?

“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.”

This is where I start getting upset. Why does Savulescu paint everyone who is against his idea as fearing genetics? That automatically puts people on the defensive or makes them start to think that there’s nothing wrong with genetic engineering. To make my point clear, I’m not afraid of genetics, I’m afraid of what some kook will do with it. Has it occurred to Savulescu that if you can genetically engineer certain traits out of a gene sequence, then you can genetically engineer them into a sequence? What if someone wants to engineer a person worse than Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot? What if someone wants to engineer a soldier that experiences no fear going into combat or remorse over killing someone (as in the movie Soldier)?

Before we go further into this brave new world, we should keep in mind the old adage, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.”

PS: The Telegraph article has an online poll which asks: “Should we consider genetically screening behavioural traits?” As of 4:44 p.m. EDT on August 16, “Yes, everybody benefits, including the child” received 36 percent of the votes while “No, it is wrong to play God in this way” received 64 percent.

Updated 2:40 pm. on August 17, 2012.