“My god no, just think if Victoria Beckham ever understood a word of what you said, the horror of the designer baby that she would demand”. With 24 ‘likes’ this was the most popular comment on a 2013 Guardian article titled, ‘“Designer babies”: the ultimate privileged elite?’.
As well as a snipe at the former Spice Girl and now fashion designer’s apparent obsession with appearance, this reveals a dissatisfaction with societal values and the culture of ‘perfection’. What happens when a society that among other things idolises fashion models and film stars – and promotes among other things cosmetic surgeries and diet pills that enable one to look like fashion models and film stars – begins to direct such feelings towards the next generation?
Though there exists considerable disquiet regarding current societal norms, many perhaps correctly defend modern reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). After all, they enable people with fertility issues to start families and can even prevent the inheritance of a range of hereditary diseases, from cystic fibrosis to muscular dystrophy. As David King commented in the early days of PGD, the main group “of clients for this service have been couples known to be at risk of having children affected by a genetic disorder, often because they already have an affected child” (King, 1999). However, though not widely legalised it is also becoming possible to control the sex, intelligence (to a degree) and physical characteristics of future children. Indeed, what begins with the elimination of ‘degenerative’ conditions could end with the ‘designer baby’. Should we be allowed such control over the genetic constitution of our children? Is this simply a dangerous and lamentable experiment as humankind’s innate obsession with ‘perfection’ persists?The much maligned eugenics movement was also concerned with human ‘perfection’. From the 1900s until well into the post-war period, one of the main concerns of British eugenicists was the removal of ‘degenerative’ hereditary conditions, mostly through the use of negative eugenics (e.g. birth control, sterilization etc). This was viewed as essential to human progress and the furtherance of evolution. However, from the mid-1930s techniques such as sterilization – and the state enforcement of – became associated with Nazi Germany and increasingly reprehensible, both from scientific and moral standpoints. The eugenics movement in Britain was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining the legislative backing it required to make a significant impact on society. In order to keep their dream of a biological utopia alive, some eugenicists gave increased consideration to the benefits of ‘positive eugenics’ in a quest for ‘better babies’ which, arguably, continues today. One of the methods considered was known as eutelegenesis, defined as “Artificial insemination by semen from a donor selected because of certain desirable characteristics for the development of superior offspring” (‘Eutelegenesis’, The Free Dictionary).
From the 1930s, figures such as Julian Huxley, Herbert Brewer and Carlos Blacker argued for the benefits of this technique over negative eugenics. With regard to the prevalence of mental deficiency and other ‘latent’ defects, whereas “the elimination of such degeneracy by sterilizing” would be like “clearing a river of fish by catching the few which jump from the water,” artificial insemination would ensure that the “existence the whole inextricable tangle of latent defect” would be swept out “in a few generations, replacing it concurrently with hereditary material of the highest excellence.” That said, one of Brewer’s central arguments was that eugenic artificial insemination should be voluntary in nature; not enforced but brought about by a national eugenic consciousness, created through education and cultural propaganda. As long as the general public could be made aware of the biological ‘facts’ of inheritance, it would surely be accepted that it was “the right of every individual that is born to the inheritance of the finest hereditary endowment that anywhere exists” (Brewer, 1937). Arguably, Brewer’s wish is finally coming true.
Since the first IVF (or ‘test tube’) baby, Louise Joy Brown, was born in 1978, artificial insemination has become more socially acceptable. In a 1996 episode of the TV show Friends, for example, the character of Monica, a single twenty-something woman, considered using a sperm bank to start a family, impressed that one donor in the catalogue was “6’2 and 170 pounds”. Arguably, IVF has shifted somewhat from an exclusivley ‘private’ matter to an accepted – if expensive – aspect of modern life. The geneticist and fertility expert, Dagan Wells commented in 2013 that “IVF is still expensive and uncomfortable with no guarantee of a baby at the end. I can’t imagine many people wanting to go through the strains of IVF for something trivial” (Wells, 2013). Are cost and efficiency the only barriers preventing IVF becoming a common practice?
Certainly the issue becomes more complex and expensive when genetic screening is introduced, as we move from ‘test tube’ to ‘designer’ babies. Films such as Gattaca (1997) make us shudder at the notion that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ society may praise stronger, faster and smarter ‘test tube babies’ and shun those ‘inferior’ individuals belonging to the ‘invalid’ minority conceived ‘naturally’.
As well as fears of a dystopian future, the idea of ‘designer babies’ also faces notable religious opposition. One contributor to an online Catholic blog writes “I can’t help but shudder at the pressure the little girls created via PGD will live under, with mommies willing to kill–literally–to have them. All of us have dreams of what we’d like our family to be. The danger is in letting those dreams rule you, to the point you’re willing to usurp God’s sovereignty over human life to get what you want. The use of sex-selection technology to obtain a child is tragic for everyone involved, from the embryonic children created (just to be destroyed), to the “lucky” girls allowed to be born (to suffocate under mommy’s expectations), to the parents losing their souls in their quest for a designer baby. Gattaca has arrived. May God have mercy on us.” (2012) When does life begin? Is IVF/PGD playing God or simply providing your child with the best possible start in life?
Whether or not they are universally accepted, we must ask the question what if techniques such as IVF and PGD become affordable options for the average consumer? If ‘test tube babies’ were ‘free on the NHS’, for instance, it seems reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of the population would use this service. Parents naturally desire to give their children the best possible chance to ‘succeed’ in life. Why not start with their genetic constitution? It seems clear from the ‘rise’ of cosmetic surgery, for instance, that mankind’s desire for ‘perfection’ did not end with the eugenics movement. With traits from intelligence to eye colour theoretically alterable before conception, why stop with our children?
‘“Designer babies”: the ultimate privileged elite?’, The Guardian, (9 July 2013), [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/09/ivf-baby-born-genetic-selection-ultimate-elite]
David S. King, ‘Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis and the “New” Eugenics,’ Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (1999), 176.
‘THE TRUE COST OF DESIGNER BABIES’ (20 September 2012),
‘Eutelegenesis’, The Free Dictionary, [http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/eutelegenesis].
Herbert Brewer, Eugenics and Politics (London: Eugenics Society, 1937), 3.