by Marcy Darnovsky
At the cusp of dot-com frenzy and the biotech century, a group of influential scientists and
pundits has begun zealously promoting a new bio-engineered utopia. In the world of their
visionary fervor, parents will strive to afford the latest genetic ìimprovementsî for their children.
According to the advocates of this human future (or, as some term it, ìpost-humanî future), the
exercise of consumer preferences for offspring options will be the prelude to a grand
achievement: the technological control of human evolution.
My first close encounter with this techno-eugenic enthusiasm was in a 1997 book written for an
unconverted lay audience by Princeton geneticist Lee M. Silver. In Remaking Eden: Cloning
and Beyond in a Brave New World (New York: Avon Books), Silver spins out scenarios of a
future in which affluent parents are as likely to arrange genetic enhancements for their children
as to send them to private school.
Silver confidently predicts that upscale baby-making will soon take place in fertility clinics,
where prospective parents will undergo an IVF procedure to create an embryo, then select the
physical, cognitive, and behavioral traits they desire for their child-to-be. Technicians will
insert the genes said to produce those traits into the embryo, and implant the embryo in the
motherís womb. Nine months later, a designer baby will be born. After a few centuries of
these practices, Silver believes, humanity will bifurcate into genetic ubermenschen and
untermenschenóand not long thereafter into different species. Here is Silverís prediction for
the year 2350:
"The GenRichówho account for 10 percent of the American populationóall carry synthetic
genes. Genes that were created in the laboratory....The GenRich are a modern-day hereditary
class of genetic aristocrats....All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment
industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by members of the GenRich class."
How do the other 90 percent live? Silver is quite blunt on this point as well: "Naturals work as
low-paid service providers or as laborers."
That rich and poor already live in biologically disparate worlds can be argued on the basis of
any number of statistical measures: life expectancy, infant mortality, access to health care. Of
course, medical resources and social priorities could be assigned to narrowing those gaps.
But if Silver and his cohort of designer-baby advocates have their way, precious medical talent
and funds will be devoted instead to a technically dubious project whose success will be
measured by the extent to which it can inscribe inequality onto the human genome. Silver
pushes his vision still further:
"As time passes,...the GenRich class and the Natural class will become the GenRich humans
and the Natural humans entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as
much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."
Silver understands that such scenarios are disconcerting. He counsels realism. In other
words, he celebrates the free reign of the market and perpetuates the myth that private
choices have no public consequences:
"Anyone who accepts the right of affluent parents to provide their children with an expensive
private school education cannot use ëunfairnessí as a reason for rejecting the use of
reprogenetic technologies....There is no doubt about it...whether we like it or not, the global
marketplace will reign supreme."
When I first read Silverís book, I imagined that these sorts of bizarre prognostications must be
the musings of a lab researcher indulging in mad-scientist mode. I soon learned differently.
They are not ravings from the margins of modern science, but emanations from its prestigious
and respected core. Silver vividly and accurately represents a technical and political agenda
for the human future that is shared by a disturbing number of Nobel laureate scientists, biotech
entrepreneurs, social theorists, bioethicists, and journalists.
Since the late 1990s, this loose alliance has been publicly and energetically promoting the
genetic technology known as ìhuman germline engineeringîó modifying the genes passed to
our children by manipulating embryos at their earliest stages of development. Such genetic
modifications would be replicated in all subsequent generations, providing supporters with the
basis to claim that "we" are on the brink of "seizing control of human evolution." Frank about
their commitments to control and ìenhancement," advocates of human germline engineering
claim that the voluntary parental participation they foresee refutes any characterization of their
project as "eugenic." With public conferences, popular books, scholarly articles, websites, and
mainstream media appearances, they are waging an all-out campaign to win public acceptance
of their techno-eugenic vision.
The promoters of a designer-baby future believe that the new human genetic and reproductive
technologies are both inevitable and a boon to humanity. They exuberantly describe near-term
genetic manipulationsówithin a generationóthat may increase resistance to diseases, ìoptimizeî
height and weight, and boost intelligence. Further off, but within the lifetimes of todayís
children, they foresee the ability to adjust personality, design new body forms, extend life
expectancy, and endow hyper-intelligence. Some even predict splicing traits from other
species into children: In late 1999, for example, an ABC Nightline special on human cloning
speculated that genetic engineers would learn to design children with 'night vision from an owl'
and 'supersensitive hearing cloned from a dog.'
How plausible are such scenarios? Because human beings are far more than the product of
genesóbecause DNA is one of many factors in human developmentóthe feats of genetic
manipulation eventually accomplished will almost certainly turn out to be much more modest
than what the designer-baby advocates predict. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that
scientists will achieve enough mastery over the human genome to wreak enormous damage -
biologically and politically.
Promoting a future of genetically engineered inequality legitimizes the vast existing injustices
that are socially arranged and enforced. Marketing the ability to specify our childrenís
appearance and abilities encourages a grotesque consumerist mentality toward children and
all human life. Fostering the notion that only a 'perfect baby' is worthy of life threatens our
solidarity with and support for people with disabilities, and perpetuates standards of perfection
set by a market system that caters to political, economic, and cultural elites. Channeling hopes
for human betterment into preoccupation with genetic fixes shrinks our already withered
commitments to improving social conditions and enriching cultural and community life.
Germline engineering is now common in laboratory animals, though it remains at best an
imprecise technology, requiring hundreds of attempts before a viable engineered animal is
produced. Human germline manipulation has not been attempted: The only kind of human
genetic procedures currently practiced involve efforts to 'fix' or substitute for the genes of
somatic (body) cells in people with health problems that in some way reflect the functions of
In about five hundred 'gene therapy' clinical trials since the early 1990s, doctors have tried to
introduce genetic modifications to patientsí lungs, nerves, muscles, and other tissues. These
efforts have been largely unsuccessful. In late 1999, their safety was also called starkly into
question by the death of an 18-year-old enrolled in a clinical trial, and by ensuing revelations of
almost 700 other 'serious adverse effects' that researchers and doctors had somehow failed to
report to the proper regulatory authorities. Some observers have commented that gene
therapy would more accurately be called "genetic experiments on human subjects."
Many people are reluctant to oppose human germline engineering because they believe that
'genetics' will deliver medical cures or treatments. But there is no reason that we cannot forgo
germline engineering and still support other genetic technologies that do in fact hold promising
medical potential. In fact, the medical justifications for human germline engineering are
strained, while its ethical and political risks are profound.
Fortunately, the distinction between human germline engineering and other genetic
technologies (including somatic genetic engineering) is a reasonably clear technical
demarcation. In many countries, this demarcation is being drawn as law. Legislation that
would ban human germline engineering and reproductive cloning is making its way through the
Canadian parliament. Germany's Embryo Protection Act of 1990 makes human cloning and
germline engineering criminal acts, and the Japanese legislature is considering establishing
prison terms for human cloning. A number of other European countries forbid cloning and
germline engineering indirectly by outlawing non-therapeutic research on human embryos.
Twenty-two European countries have signed a Council of Europe bioethics convention that
includes similar restrictions. In the United States, however, neither federal law nor policy
forbids human germline engineering or cloning, though federal funds cannot be used for any
kinds of human cloning experiments.
In order to bring the new human genetic technologies under social governance, strong political
pressure and a broad social movement will be necessary. Though no such movement
currently exists, efforts to alert and engage a variety of constituencies are getting underway.
The movement that this work aims to catalyze will need to draw in a wide range of
constituencies, and encompass a variety of motivations. Some participants will base their
opposition to a techno-eugenic future on their commitments to equality and justice, and to
human improvement through social change rather than technical fix. Others will be moved by
the threats to human dignity and human rights, and the horror of treating children as
custom-made commodities, that germline engineering and cloning entail. Still others will find
their primary inspiration in the precautionary principle, or their wariness of techno-scientific
hubris and a reductionist world view, or their objections to corporate ownership of life at the
molecular level, or their skepticism about the drastic technological manipulation of the natural
It will be far easier to prevent a techno-eugenic future if we act before human germline
manipulation develops further, either as technology or ideology. This is a crucial juncture: a
window that the campaign for human germline engineering is trying to slam shut. Your
participation is urgently needed.
(A longer version of this article is forthcoming as 'The Case Against Designer Babies: The
Politics of Genetic Enhancement,' in Brian Tokar, ed. Redesigning Life? The Worldwide
Challenge to Genetic Engineering, Zed Books.)