An Oxford University academic, Professor Julian Savulescu, has raised the temperature in an already heated debate on the so-called ‘designer babies’, by publicly pledging his support for embryo screening of personality traits. Savulescu proposed that it would be unethical to ignore this particular advance in genetic engineering, even describing the opportunity as a “moral obligation”.
Embryo screening involves the pre-implantation testing of an embryo, as part of an IVF treatment. It has been suggested that, within the next five years, IVF clinicians may be able to screen each and every embryo for its physical and psychological features; if the results are not as desirable as hoped, those particular genes would be screened out of the process. Certain genes linked to depression and violence, such as the MAOA ‘warrior’ gene, will also be highlighted in the process, allowing parents to ‘perfect’ their offspring.
Wouldn’t it be better to preserve some faith in our future generations? After all, we’ve survived as a species thus far. Perhaps, some of the World’s most influential and intelligent people wouldn’t be here today if they had been screened as embryos and it had been decided that they didn’t fit the bill. We should be able to accept that not one person is a perfect mix, as that’s the whole point of our species. We’re diverse, and it is our diversity that allows us to develop as an international species. Remove the diversity, and we wouldn’t be half as interesting or adept.
Dicing with the lives of thousands of children is considered to be morally acceptable by Savulescu, the expert in practical ethics, as long as the outcome is that of a more stable and safe society. But how can we judge what our nation will be like in twenty years, when history has shown that society is inherently unpredictable, and liable to change. In addition, study upon study into psychological development has shown that personality traits are not simply the outcome of genetics; upbringing and life experiences affect a personality beyond the grasp of genetics. How can we ‘morally’ select an embryo for its admirable genes, when we can’t be sure that the person will grow into them?
It seems that Savulescu’s point of view on the matter is fundamentally flawed. It certainly would be a step in the right direction to determine if your child is more susceptible to health problems, but where will this search for ‘perfection’ finish? Once people are able to pre-determine personality traits, pre-determined physical traits such as hair colour and height are just around the corner, with the potential to turn the nation into a nightmarish sequel to The Stepford Wives.
The problem is that if we start messing around with future personalities, IVF clinicians will be treading a very thin line between ‘success’ and treating our future generations as guinea pigs, something I hope nobody in their right minds would advocate. Perhaps we should slow the process down a few notches, before we all start affixing ‘Made in the UK’ labels to our embryos.