Designer Babies: Genetic Selection Takes Off

With Support on Both Sides of Political Spectrum

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LONDON, FEB. 10, 2001 ( Hardly a week goes by without some announcement of advances in genetics. In the midst of this scientific development pressures are growing to practice eugenics, either by eliminating unborn children seen as inferior or by looking for ways to enhance the quality of the next generation.

A recent example of this mentality was an essay published Feb. 5 in the Guardian newspaper by Johnjoe McFadden, reader in molecular microbiology at the University of Surrey. According to McFadden, unless we embrace genetic engineering, we will become a sickly and frail species.

His reasoning is based on the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Over millions of years, he explains, the strong have survived while the weak perished, and this «has turned us into the successful animals we are today.» The problem nowadays is that modern medicine allows the genetic failures to survive and reproduce and while we are now healthier than in the past, our genetic stock is not improving.

The answer, according to McFadden, is to embrace the new technology that will enable the human genetic code to be modified, and by this means we can avoid degeneration.

Batch 28
Another way to «improve» the human race is by selective breeding. The Telegraph on Feb. 6 examined the life of Doron Blake, one of America´s first designer babies. Doron, now at university in Portland, Oregon, was conceived using specially selected sperm intended to give him a Mensa-grade IQ, and a genius for science, music and visual art.

In part, this project has been successful. In his school exams he scored the maximum possible in math, and he plays the piano, the guitar and the sitar with ease. He has known about his origins since he was 5, the age at which he last took an IQ test. «It was about 180, I´m not sure,» Doron said. However, he has had emotional difficulties and suffers a stammer. He also finds science boring; his degree subject is comparative religion.

Doron was conceived as part of a project at the Repository for Germinal Choice, an institution founded in Southern California in 1980, known also as the Genius Sperm Bank. His father was only known as Batch 28. The clinic´s founder, Robert Graham, founded the center in order to help the human race by improving its genetic inheritance.

The idea was to gather the sperm of the world´s finest intellects — Nobel prize winners, professors, great artists and musicians — and offer it to women interested in giving birth to babies who might grow up to be geniuses. Among the first donors, and the only one to announce his intentions, was the physicist and Nobel laureate William Shockley, who openly proclaimed a belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.

Doron´s mother, Afton Blake, is a New Age psychologist and unreconstructed hippie who never married, and she was among the first customers at the clinic. Doron was the second of 230 babies to be conceived.

Embryo screening
Another way to practice eugenics is by eliminating those considered inferior. The New Zealand Herald on Jan. 22 described a project to do this recently received official approval. Dr. Bert Stewart of Auckland Fertility Associates says authorization has been granted by the Ministry of Health´s ethics committee for a feasibility study on a program which will screen out defective embryos before birth.

He says the program checks chromosomes in embryo cells to screen out defective embryos which are unlikely to develop into babies, or to become babies with severe developmental abnormalities. Stewart says the program will make a huge difference to couples trying to have children through in vitro fertilization treatment.

British scientists, meanwhile, have developed a test that permits doctors to screen embryos for low intelligence. The Sunday Times reported Nov. 26 that the testing kit can identify a range of genetic defects known to lead to learning difficulties. The kit has been adapted for use by doctors in America and Spain on families they suspect have an inherited risk of a defect. Using test-tube baby techniques, these doctors then select only perfect embryos to be returned to the womb.

Some experts reject this method, fearing that it creates a mentality that rejects babies with lower intelligence. «There is an urgent need for regulation of what constitutes legitimate use of this type of genetic diagnosis,» said Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics. «Low IQ is not life-threatening. This is a significant step towards eugenics.»

There are already indications that in some circles having a low IQ is already seen as marking someone out as subhuman. The Conservative News Service reported Jan. 15 that, during an episode on parenting, talk-show host Bill Maher said dogs and mentally retarded children were comparable.

The show, which aired Jan. 11, featured a panel of four guests who discussed parental responsibilities. At one point, Maher told a guest he had two dogs, but no children, and added, «I´ve often said if I had two retarded children, I´d be a hero, and yet the dogs, which are pretty much the same thing — what?» Maher continued by characterizing mentally retarded children as «sweet,» «loving,» and «kind, but they don´t mentally advance at all. … Dogs are like retarded children.»

Eugenics defended
On a more intellectual level, eugenics is enjoying renewed popularity. In the winter issue of the magazine The Public Interest, executive editor Adam Wolfson said that according to the founder of sociobiology, Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, within a few decades we will enter an era of «volitional evolution,» having gained the ability to «alter not just the anatomy and intelligence of the species but also the emotions and creative drive that compose the very core of human nature.»

Influential voices, noted Wolfson, have supported this engineered evolution, among them the ethicist Ronald Dworkin. In his latest book, «Sovereign Virtue,» Dworkin derives a eugenic imperative out of liberalism´s principles of equality and autonomy. Regarding the equality principle, Dworkin argues «that it is objectively important that any human life, once begun, succeed rather than fail — that the potential of that life be realized rather than wasted — and that this is equally objectively important in the case of each human life.» And regarding liberalism´s principle of autonomy, Dworkin holds that a person «has a right to make the fundamental decisions that define, for him, what a successful life would be.» Taken together, these two liberal principles mandate, in Dworkin´s view, a new eugenics.

It´s not only liberals who endorse eugenics, observed Wolfson. The libertarian magazine Reason and the conservative National Review have both run articles endorsing the new eugenics. This is due to the influence of individualism within some conservative circles, a mentality that endorses the right of everyone to make their own private choices.

Wolfson notes that our view of man is saturated with technological categories of thought. It´s time for a more rounded vision of the human person, based on Christian humanism, which will put forward convincing arguments to reject the new wave of eugenics.

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