A Chinese researcher has claimed that he helped make world’s first genetically edited babies but the development may come at a heavy cost
In the dystopian novel, Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1932, the setting is a futuristic world. The novel is set in London where citizens are being nurtured in artificial wombs and engineered through childhood indoctrination programmes into predestined categories based on their intelligence and skills. Though this novel was written decades ago, today, genetically modified (GM) children seem to be the next step towards transforming family structures across the globe. Though no designer baby has been born as yet, in a technology driven world, it is going to soon become a reality. Already, Genomic Prediction, a company based in New Jersey, USA, plans to offer tests to calculate the risk of complex conditions like heart disease of an unborn child. The cost of human gene sequencing too is dropping—from $1,000 today, it could drop to below $100 over the next few years.
In simple terms, a designer baby is a GM human embryo with appropriate qualities which have been shaped as per the instructions received from the parents. The process through which designer babies are produced is known as gene editing. Next, these cuts are restored through non-homologous end joining or homologous recombination that result in the desired edits. Using molecular scissors, cuts can be made at certain locations of the genome. Specifically, designer babies were conceived so that children would be free from any life-threatening disease. For instance, if either of the parent has a history of a terminally ill disease in their family, the GM baby will be immune to that disease. Through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and pre-genetic testing, the doctor will be able to identify the genes which could carry the potential danger of that disease. Those genes will be muted before the fertilisation of the egg and the fetus produced will be devoid of any anomaly. Given the noble cause associated with gene editing, it is important to understand the ethical challenges of such a process as well the consequences of such a technology in determining the future of families across the globe.
Politics of the body
In his seminal work Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault had argued that with the advancement of medical sciences, an individual will gradually lose the right over one’s body. This argument is increasingly becoming true with the intrusion of technology in reproductive health. In addition to parents succumbing to technology to satisfy their needs, there are several ethical challenges involved with designer babies.
Given the newness of the technology, it is difficult to predict how the designer baby will grow up to be. It is also too early to calculate the side effects of this kind of technology. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that the unborn child’s consent is not taken before the process of gene editing. This is a huge ethical challenge.
Moreover, GM babies are bound to create more inequality in society. This technology is expensive and only a certain section of society will be able to access it. Hence, the designer babies will mostly be born with fair skin and skills which will result in securing lucrative jobs. Thus the technology will be used to perfect the body and the mind of the unborn baby and will result in the growth of homogeneous individuals.
The gender factor
India witnessed the debate around designer babies when the health wing of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) announced that eugenics could be used to enable dark skinned Indian parents to have fair and high IQ children. RSS stressed on Ayurveda which has the abilities to purify the entire population of the country. The health wing of the RSS indicated that if the mother eats right and then it will be possible to have a customised baby. The emphasis on fair and high IQ babies clearly indicates, the RSS’ vision of the future population of India.
In addition to producing fair and high skill set producing children, gene editing will lead to discrimination on the basis of gender as well. In India, this technology will be used in sex selection as well. One of the features of this technology is that it can scan the sperms of the male partner. Given India’s history of preference for the male child, there are fears that the sperm with the male gene will be injected and more male children will be born.
Additionally, genetically engineered babies will also expand the gap between the West and the Third World. Since, this form of technology will be expensive in countries such as the US and countries of Europe, a large number of foreigners will travel to various Third World countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal and avail the technology at much cheaper rates.
Genetically engineered babies as a form of technology is still in its infancy. However, given the upsurge in egg banking, IVFs and surrogacy, experts feel that this technology will garner popularity. Past experiences show that due to lack of regulation, Third World countries were exploited by people in rich nations to satisfy their parenting needs. Since discussions around gene editing, gene engineering and designer babies have already started doing the rounds, it is important for international bodies such as the World Health Organization to set guidelines and regulatory measures at the very onset.
(The author is a post-doctoral fellow at the Manipal Center for Humanities, Manipal)
(This article will appear in the 16-31st issue of Down To Earth under the headline 'Custom-made babies').
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