Oh brave, new world...

Be brave. This article will have nothing to do with Tuesday’s elections. It’s about a future, a future that will be arriving regardless of who wins the Whitehouse.

Science fiction has a way of turning into reality unexpectedly. It happened again this weekend in the United Kingdom with a small, sensible step, which has the unfortunate side effect of raising deeper and more disturbing question about the future of humanity. Embryonic genetic screening is here, real, and about to become part of the tapestry of human events. Designer babies may be next.

This week, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority approved the screening of embryos produced by couples affected by a genetic form of bowl cancer. The genetically inherited cancer has a high chance of being passed on to offspring, and can trigger cancer very early in life (on average potentially starting at the age of 20). The HFEA’s decision means that embryos can be screened for genetic markers which indicate that the inherited cancer has been passed on.

The screening is intended as a humanitarian effort, and the reasoning behind it is clear. Unfortunately, the decision raises the specter of designer children, embryos chosen based on favorable genetic traits while lesser embryonic choices are eliminated.

As our understanding of the human genome increases (indeed, our knowledge of human genetics has grown at rates unimaginable only a decade ago), it is only a matter of time before more mundane traits are localized. Whereas the forefront of genetic research is still squarely focused on identifying genetic markers for diseases and congenital afflictions, charting favorable markers for traits as muscle growth, organ development, vision, and even intelligence, may be much closer than we suspect. Even now, the foundations are being laid as we strive to crack the meaning of the genetic puzzle. The potential payoffs are enormous, as are the resulting political realities.

In a world of many nations, the possibility of designer babies is likely to become a question of national competitiveness very quickly. Although the culture of the west may find much to object to morally, it is realistic to expect that individuals, and possibly some governments, will find the potential for screening embryos very desirable. From the reduction of medical costs (call it preventative genetic medicine) to the allure of a genetically superior military or citizenry, the eerie potential of genetic embryonic screening is straight from the pages of science fiction, and rocketing its way towards a world called now.

In a competitive world, will nations be able to ignore the advantages offered by such a technology, potentially at a moral cost beyond what we can even comprehend? Will parents ignore a technology which one day might guarantee a healthy child, potentially a superior child?

Such questions are no longer the purview of fictional medical thrillers. The future has truly arrived, and we will have to deal with it. The decisions we make now will determine, in a profound way, the shape of humanity beyond the horizon of our times.

Posted by Damon Dimmick at October 31, 2004 11:40 PM