Celebrities go to great lengths to obtain the children of their dreams. Singer Céline Dion can’t seem to visit Africa or Asia without leaving with a kid. Then there was Michael Jackson, whose children’s mysterious origins continue to be the topic of endless speculation.that she’s pregnant with her second child through in vitro fertilization. Madonna and Angelina Jolie
Whether their intentions are noble or egotistical, the rich and famous like to cross the lines of race, gender, and biology to get the children they want. But what if they could actually design and create a baby exactly the way they wanted? It’s a scary thought, but one that may soon become a reality.
Earlier this year, Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg of The Fertility Institutes advertised that he could offer would-be parents the ability to select their unborn child’s hair, eye, and skin color. An ethical debate ensued, and Steinberg retracted his claims. The scientific world quickly pointed out that no one is able to do what Steinberg claimed … yet.
According to Dr. John F. Kilner, professor of Bioethics and Contemporary Culture and the director of theat Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, there are several ethical issues involved with this potential scientific breakthrough. “Analogous issues are raised by some forms of genetic engineering to enhance human traits,” says Kilner. He adds, “Because most such traits are combinations of genetic factors that are far from understood yet, they will not be engineered in the lab any time soon. However, now is the time to consider the ethics involved, so that science and society can decide whether or not such engineering should be pursued in the first place.”
The procedure at the center of the controversy is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). It’s used to identify genetic abnormalities in embryos conceived in laboratories by in-vitro fertilization (IVF), and it is used in gender-selection. IVF is the procedure that was reportedly used in the creation of Michael Jackson’s children.
In PGD abnormal embryos are typically discarded, while normal ones are selected for implantation. The embryos are screened for genetic defects which can cause diseases and disorders, such as Cystic fibrosis. As more studies are conducted, PGD has the potential to prevent and even cure countless diseases.
But there is already talk about using PGD for other purposes, such as selecting physical features. The media has dubbed these potential children as “designer babies,” and there is a growing debate about whether it is ethical to use PGD for cosmetic purposes. People may someday be able to pick the color and style of their children as if they were looking at paint samples and fabric swatches. One reporter suggested picking a nice Beyoncé brown. Or how about a Mariah Carey caramel?
Obeying God vs. Playing God
Another expert in the field of bioethics is Dr. David B. Fletcher. He teaches bioethics and ethical theory at Wheaton College, while also teaching in the Bioethics program at the Trinity Graduate School, where he is a fellow of the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. “I think that God has given us the mandate to cure, and when we do so we are obeying His mandate,” Fletcher says. “Genetic cures are more effective and, therefore, better in that respect. Selfishness doesn’t come up here, but it does come up in the issue of enhancement, of trying to make ourselves or our children more perfect than they ought to be.”
As science continues to advance, there is already speculation about screening babies for other qualities, such as athletic ability and mental intelligence. A major concern is that if a child is genetically enhanced and does not live up to the expected standards, his or her parents may become upset because their investment did not work out. This would put large amounts of pressure on children and obviously could lead to great psychological damage. In this scenario, children would be viewed more as commodities than as human beings.
“Producing children with particular traits because they are useful or attractive for some reason is problematic when these traits are engineered, just as they are when they are selected via PGD,” says Kilner. “This would lead to children being ‘used’ in order for parents to achieve what they want.”
Of course, who’s to say that in some circumstances, celebrities aren’t already using their children for publicity and prestige? It is obvious that Madonna, Angelina, and Michael all had something in mind as to what kind of children they wanted, and they did what it took to make their desires become reality. Who knows what lengths people who can afford it will go to as science progresses?
From Sci-Fi to Reality
With these new technological advancements, there are countless concerns. Some fear that the pursuit of cures and treatments for those already living with certain diseases will be brought to a halt if these diseases can be cured before birth, causing those with the disease to be looked down upon. Then there is the issue of what happens to certain embryos that do not meet the required results. Typically, these embryos would be weeded out and discarded, which falls under the sanctity of human life debate. Other potential problems include gender imbalance throughout the world due to gender selection or — as an extreme — the idea of a “super pure race.”
Says Kilner, “Unless one can accurately say that every human being would rather be male than female, then a parent cannot engineer — or select — a child that is male under the guise that it is what the child would want. One person is forcing another person to be a certain way in possible contradiction to what the second person wants — which is a problem ethically speaking.”
Practically speaking, however, this type of controversial science will be out of reach to most people. Even if these advancements are made, only the wealthy will be able to afford them. Right now, PGD costs approximately $2,500 to $4,000 on top of the likely $10,000 to $12,000 cost involved in the in-vitro fertilization process used to produce the embryos. This would widen the gap even more between the upper and lower class.
For years this type of advancement was considered to be science fiction, especially in Hollywood, but it turns out the fiction perhaps was only a foreshadowing of things to come. The 1997 film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law, paints an eerie picture of how genetic engineering can divide society and the human race. It’s about two brothers, one who is genetically enhanced (called a “valid”) and one who is not (called an “in-valid” or a “God-child”). The film takes place in the “not-too-distant future” and shows a society where one’s genetic makeup determines his or her social class.
“Gattaca is a terrific movie for showing what the dangers of genetic information are,” Fletcher says. “Intriguingly, abuses of genetic information are in the ‘private sector’ more than in the hands of an all-powerful state, as is usually the storyline [in fictional scenarios]. I do think we’re on our way to Gattaca. But the film also shows that genetics doesn’t determine everything.”
The Church’s Role
With this scientific advancement and ethical debate, it’s important for Christians to take a stand and be heard, says Fletcher, especially since there are currently no laws regulating these procedures within the U.S. “Every segment of society is voicing its particular perspective in the public debate. Christians are particularly blessed with a perspective on the value of human life that is not necessarily shared by others. We need to bring this to the table.”
In order to be heard and respected in the ethical debate, Christians need to be educated and familiarized with the issues at hand, suggests Kilner. “There is a crucial need for Christians to become informed about these issues and to become leading voices in the church and in the world,” he says. “Nothing less than God’s glory and human life and dignity are at stake!
For Christians, it’s not always easy to know where to stand in such debates. “Many Christians have difficulty engaging in ethical thought when they are in an area about which the Bible doesn’t have much to say,” says Fletcher. “They haven’t developed an ability to engage in ethical reflection, even though the book of Hebrews tells us that those who are mature in Christ are those ‘who by constant practice have trained their faculties to distinguish good from evil.'”
Kilner adds, “Christians are called to love God and neighbor, and there are few more important and powerful ways to do that than to engage today’s and tomorrow’s bioethical challenges.”
Scriptural Guidance on the Sanctity of Life
• Genesis 1 – significance of embryonic human life
• Genesis 9:6 – image of God as the basis for not taking human life
• Luke 1 – Jesus began as an embryo
• Psalm 51:5 – human responsibility established at conception
• Psalm 139:13-16 – God forms us in the womb and has a plan for us even before our birth
• Galatians 6:10 – commends doing good
• Romans 3:8 – we are not to do evil in order to produce good
• Proverbs 16:8 – “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.”
For additional information and resources, visit the website for Trinity International University’s Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.