Designer Babies: The Good and the Bad

What Is Meant by “Designer Babies”?

    The term “designer babies” refers to the concept of isolating human embryos from willing donors and allowing individuals to select from those embryos based on whichever ones have the most desirable genes or traits. This practice is more formally known as liberal eugenics. Already, a similar practice has been put into place to genetically engineer and modify certain plant species in order to increase insecticide resistance and provide better crop yields. By inserting desired genes into bacterial plasmids and allowing plant cells to take up the foreign DNA, numerous plant species now have the ability to survive harsh conditions such as heat and cold, resist pesticides more effectively, yield more plentiful amounts of edible foods, and pass on their desirable genes to viable offspring. Rice, corn, and tomatoes are good examples of plants that have been modified in this way (Byrne). In fact, the U.S. and Canada are the leading producers of these genetically modified foods (see chart below). Now, the question remains if it is ethically and socially acceptable to implement a similar kind of practice to modify human beings so that they will, in turn, possess the most desired traits and be able to pass them on from generation to generation.

The world has been genetically engineering food crops for almost two decades now so that they have the most advantageous characteristics. So isn't it about time that society start making humanity as a whole smarter by genetically engineering humans? That is the big debate here, and it will take some thinking through before any decision can be made.

What factors lead to the emergence of eugenics?

    The driving force behind the idea of eugenics was the economic and social issues affecting society during the late nineteenth century. Through teachings of Thomas Malthus, an English preacher, and Herbert Spencer, a philosopher, it became widely accepted that the main cause of society’s problems were the criminals, the mentally ill, and the poor ("Eugenics: A Planned Evolution"). They believed that if those types of individuals were allowed to keep on reproducing, they would subsequently generate a class of people who would continually pose a liability for society as a whole. As a result, the most effective way to combat this problem would be to curb the reproduction among these types of individuals. This idea carried itself well into the twentieth century on through the events of World War II.

When has eugenics been used in the past?

    It was during World War II that the ideas behind eugenics stemming from earlier teachings came to be first implemented. One of the most notable examples is that of Adolf Hitler and his desire to perfect the human race. During the first years of World War II, Hitler initiated a series of racial hygiene laws that required all people judged to be “deviant” or a “source of social turmoil” to be sterilized and/or killed (Stein). About 400,000 people were sterilized against their will and another 70,000 were killed in a euthanasia program codenamed Action T4, which sought to eliminate those "judged incurably sick" ("The T4 Euthanasia Program"). The people who met this unfortunate fate included the mentally retarded, the physically weak, the homosexuals, Jews, and anyone else deemed to be unsatisfactory of the norm. Shown below is a poster  Eventually, this all lead to Hitler and the Nazis coming to the conclusion that only a “white race,” incorrectly termed as Aryan, was needed in order to preserve humanity’s well being; the result, of course, was the Holocaust, in which genocide of millions of people, most notably Jews and homosexuals, occurred (“History of the Holocaust”).  As mentioned previously, Hitler’s campaign was heavily influenced by earlier ideas of eugenics which mentioned that the people responsible for the world’s misfortunes were those who failed to live up to societal norms and need be completely eliminated from civilization. His genocidal mission is a great example of what can happen if the ethical issues surrounding the practice of eugenics are left unchecked.

Shown here is a German propaganda poster, which encouraged fellow Germans to show support for their legislation on compulsory sterilization of "unfit" individuals. The translation of the title of the poster is "We do not stand alone." The Germans said that to emphasize that their nation was not the only one which had already enacted a series of sterilization laws and that more nations were considering adopting similar legislation. The flags shown on the left of the poster are those of countries which had some form of mandatory sterilization already present and the flags on the right are of those countries which were considering doing so.

What is the status of eugenics today?

   As human civilization progressed into the modern day, advances in the study of genetics, most notably the mapping of the human genome, has given humanity the ability to pinpoint the exact cause of numerous genetic deficiencies. For example, we now know that genetic diseases, such as Tay-sachs, cystic fibrosis, and sickle-cell anemia, are caused by the acquisition of one or more forms of a particular gene (alleles). See the Punnett square diagram below to see more clearly how the inheritance of alleles work. We can find the exact location of where the defective gene lies by tracing the DNA code. Not only do we know what genes are responsible for producing diseases, but we also know many of the genes coding for traits such as eye and hair color, gender, personality, physical attributes, and to a certain degree, even IQ (Saletan). Given a few more years of research and development, it is very likely that we will have the ability to selectively breed individuals to our liking. However, we must first take into account the social, economical, and ethical implications designer babies will have on society before any further research is devoted to this extremely controversial subject.

Shown here is a Punnett square diagram illustrating the way many genetic diseases are inherited. Many diseases, such as Tay-sachs, cystic fibrosis, and sickle-cell anemia, are inherited through the acquisition of two recessive alleles coding for that disease. In this diagram, the genotype for a person affected with any of these diseases could be represented as "bb." People who are heterozygotes for a disease (meaning that they have one recessive and dominant allele) do not actually have that disease but can still pass the allele coding for the disease to their children. As shown in this illustration, two heterozygotes have a 1 in 4 chance of having a child who is has a purely recessive genotype, meaning that the child will be affected with a disease transmitted in that manner.

What is our general opinion on the issue?

    We, the creators of this website, believe that if eugenics is carefully controlled and safely practiced, it would do a society a huge favor by drastically reducing the spread of genetic diseases and disorders. Many people today are born into the world deadly genetic sicknesses that severely reduce their life expectancies. With this careful practice of eugenics put into play, we can make sure that the embryos are free of any of the defective genes responsible for these diseases before they are allowed to develop into human beings. In that way, when they are born, they will not be a burden to society, their parents, or themselves. However, learning from the Hitler example, we do realize that using designer babies for the purpose of physical and mental enhancement is wrong and can lead to disastrous consequences. As a result, we are only advocating the use of eugenics for the sole purpose of ridding deadly genetic diseases and nothing else.