Wednesday, 29 August, 2012

Last week, well-known philosopher and bioethicist Julian Savulescu caused a stir in the United Kingdom when he suggested that we have a “moral obligation” to create so-called designer babies using genetic screening. According to Savulescu – who made his comments in the latest edition of Reader’s Digest - doing so would cause children to grow up “ethically better.” He also believes that giving parents the opportunity to screen out personality flaws would produce offspring less likely to harm themselves and others.

Aside from the basic moral and ethical dilemmas this logic presents – the human desire to play ‘god’, for instance – the consequences of a genetically modified society would be disastrous.

There are a number of critical problems in Savulescu’s thinking:

  1. Savulescu contradicts himself; on the one hand, he describes genetic screening as a “moral obligation” for our society whilst on the other, he advocates for it to be voluntary. In his article, he states that it would be different to the eugenics movements the Nazis use because the nature of it would be voluntary.

  2. The voluntary system Savulescu suggests is a problem in itself. Allowing a system of voluntary genetic modification creates a future divided society and the prospect of a new and more serious form of segregation based on genotype. Not only would it discourage a person to be themselves, it would deflate the idea of being a unique individual. It would cause a significant rift between those who can afford genetic modification and those who cannot. If society embraces the choice for genetic screening, it will normalise the process. This would mean that should parents decide not to comply, they would be regarded as ‘abnormal,’ and will thus result in a dreadful cultural norm.

  3. He states that by screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out. The process of genetic screening as identified by Savulescu has no influence on how a child turns out. Rather, it discards the embryos that we do not like and keeps the ones we do. In an interview with the Australian Christian Lobby, Dr Greg Pike, a bioethicist from Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, said that there is one fundamental problem underlying Savulescu’s thinking: genes are influential in determining physical traits such as eye colour, but it is extremely difficult to connect a person’s genes to behaviours such as violence.

It is significant to also note that although Savulescu has stated he opposes legalising infanticide – killing a baby within one year of birth – he defended a controversial article published earlier in the year by two of his colleagues in the Journal of Medical Ethics (he is the editor of the publication) which contended that newborn babies are not “actual persons” and parents should have the right to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born. Peter Singer, a renowned ethicist and philosopher, holds similar beliefs. He argues that persons with very severe disabilities have a lesser right to life and believes that because of this, parents should be able to choose before or after birth whether they want their child to live or die.

It is important to question where this agenda and type of thinking is headed. If genetically modifying unborn children becomes the norm in society, we are essentially allowing ourselves to tamper with what is inherently natural. We are cleaning up the human gene pool of all the ‘bad stuff,’ making judgements on whom we want around and who we would rather be rid of. This mentality goes against the very core moral conscience of humanity. If we are allowing our medical professionals to tamper with human life, to abort our unborn children, or kill them even when they are born, what is next? Will we allow doctors to kill any person, young or old, with a disability, and then get punished for it if we do not comply? We cannot allow such dangerous thinking to  remain uncontested and take root in society’s moral and ethical behaviour patterns.