A dip in the gene pool

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am

Consider for a moment the implications of a deaf couple who want to have a deaf child. Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough never considered deafness a disability but saw it rather as a cultural identity. They wanted their child to share their language, orientation and world. They sought a sperm donor with five generations of deafness in his family and their wish was granted. Their son Gauvin was born deaf.

When Harvard University professor of philosophy Michael Sandel asked the audience at the University of Hong Kong recently whether they found that objectionable about half the hands shot up in the lecture theatre.

Yet in the case of an advert that appeared in Ivy League student newspapers offering US$50,000 for an egg donor from a person at least five feet 10 inches tall, with an athletic build, no family history of medical problems and boasting a combined SAT score of 1,400 or above, he elicited far fewer protests.

'Most of you are troubled by some aspect or other of the project of genetic engineering for enhancement,' Professor Sandel said. 'But it is not that easy to identify what is wrong about it.

'Our moral and political vocabulary is drawn on the ideals of rights, fairness and choice, or the language of utility and maximising general welfare. But neither those parts of our moral vocabulary enable us to capture what it is that troubles us.'

Professor Sandel, who served four years on the President's Council on Bioethics in the US, sets out in his book The Case Against Perfection to draw the moral line between genetic engineering for the purposes of health and that of enhancement.

He painted a Gattaca-like world, after the 1997 science fiction movie, in which the 'natural way' of reproduction is shunned in favour of designer babies created in laboratories, engineering sex, height, skin colour and IQ.

As the geneticist counsellor in the film, portrayed by Blair Underwood, assures the parents: 'Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.'

Professor Sandel drew many parallels such as sex-selective abortion, performance enhancing drugs and 'hyper-parenting' by enrolling children in expensive schools, piano lessons, swimming lessons, ballet dancing and examination prep courses.

He noted among philosophers the revival of 'liberal' eugenics, which advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through selective breeding, birth control, prenatal screening and more recently genetic engineering.

'To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they are. Parental love is not contingent on the talents and attributes that their children possess. Yet parents also have a responsibility to educate them, to mould them and to improve them to give them the best chance in life,' he said.

'Given the duty of parents to promote the well being of their children, genetic enhancement becomes not only permissible but obligatory. The defenders of enhancement are right to the extent that it is similar in spirit to many of the heavily managed child rearing practises common these days.'

He concluded that the dangers inherent in genetic enhancement lay in the 'explosion' of the responsibility of parents towards their child as they become a part of the genetic arms race.

'Changing our children to fit the world is the deepest form of disempowerment. As we attribute less to chance and more to choice, parents will become responsible for choosing, or failing to choose, the right traits for their children, and held responsible for any defects.

'It will reflect and reinforce the view of children as consumer goods,' he said.

He added it would also risk eroding mankind's solidarity that arises out of a sense of shared fate. 'If our genetic endowments become achievements for which we can claim credit rather than gifts bestowed upon us, the successful would become even more likely to view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient. Those at the bottom would be viewed not as disadvantaged but simply unfit. Perfect genetic control would erode the actual solidarity that arises when men and women reflect upon the contingency of their talents and fortune.'

Director of HKU's Social Sciences Research Centre Professor John Bacon-Shone pointed to other dangers of genetic enhancement, such as the narrowing of the human gene pool and that positive traits selected may have negative side effects.

'I suspect that many negative traits are linked with positive ones. For example, the genetic variation linked sickle cell anaemia is protective for malaria and I am sure that we will find many other examples like this in future. I also think that diversity is a critical characteristic of the human race which enables us to adapt to our environment. Reducing diversity may even put the future of the race at risk.

'Many traits are not simple and may not have direct genetic links. I think the key question is the distinction between individual health where the choices are much clearer and public health where the choices are much harder,' he said.

Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai, of HKU's Department of Politics and Public Administration, said Professor Sandel's arguments could be used to justify the existence of God. 'An age-old objection is how an omnipotent God can allow all these bad things to happen in the world. Sandel's arguments could help explain why.'

Professor Sandel urged leaders and policymakers to engage in an open and frank debate about the moral implications of reproductive technologies that involved parents 'picking and choosing'.

However, he assured his audience a brave new world of widespread eugenics as portrayed in Gattaca was still many generations away from reality. 'Sexual reproduction will survive very well on its own,' Professor Sandel said. 'People like doing it the natural way.'