Thursday, May 23, 2013

Genetic Enhancement, Autonomy, and Society

Prenatal and postnatal genetic enhancement may ultimately result in a post-human society. These techniques remain in the science fiction realm for the foreseeable future, but a consideration of their implications is critically important for our ability to successfully manage their impact.

What might be good concerning genetic enhancement and what might be not so good? In the early going there would be questions of distributive justice. As the procedures would be costly in the initial period of availability, the rich would get richer. One solution could involve government subsidies for those who are economically disadvantaged.

As a taxpayer, I'd resist such use of my contributions to federal coffers. Possibly the government could subsidize a select number of procedures for the entire population, and a lottery would determine the lucky families. At least, this would be a more equitable use of these new technologies.

I'll level the playing field and create a scenario in which any family can afford genetic enhancement. Is the autonomy of the enhanced child affected? On one view, as this child is the one actually born, she can have no complaints regarding autonomy, at least with respect to her enhanced genetic sequence. She's alive, and this is only a bad thing in the extremely unlikely circumstance that her life is not worth living.

Similar views have been propounded by Robertson in his discussion of early IVF techniques: "Since offspring would have had no alternative route to a healthy birth, embryo transfer... would not harm offspring, and therefore could not be banned on that basis."1

The child's autonomy would be affected by parents who attempt to limit their offspring's choices. But a child's autonomy is never that of an adult. A child's choices are always limited. A proportion of parents who choose genetic enhancement will be smart parents who have upgraded their child's opportunities and provide the space for their child to make her own choices (within the boundaries of being a child). Another group of parents will attempt to force choices upon their child. I assert this would occur regardless of the availability of genetic enhancement.

Such genetic manipulation could provide great value. I would have enjoyed being able to run faster and jump higher. What if we could be able to breathe underwater? Such an enhancement would be greatly appreciated by many. What if we could read a 400-page book in an hour? I'd like to be able to do that, too.

But considering how much progress has been achieved in the last 50 years regarding the treatment of cancer (literally zero), such genetic breakthroughs are at least 100 years away. Regardless, a forward-thinking society would have its ethical constructs in place in advance of the technology.

1 Robertson JA: The new reproduction. Southern Cal Law Rev 59:987-1000, 1986

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