Home Overview Press Room Blog Publications For Students about us

The Case Against Designer Babies

The Politics of Genetic Enhancement
by Marcy DarnovskyRedesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, edited by Brian Tokar, New York: Zed Books, 2001
November 30th, 2000

(in Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, edited by Brian Tokar, New York: Zed Books, 2001)

"Life is entering a new phase in its history. We are seizing control of our own evolution." -- Gregory Stock (1)

 "No one really has the guts to say it....If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we do it?" -- James Watson (2)

The technology to produce human clones--genetic copies of existing people--is within reach of today's researchers and fertility doctors. By the time you, or perhaps the children you know, decide to have babies, cloning may well be an option.

Designer babies--children whose genes have been permanently altered to "enhance" them physically or behaviorally, and who will pass their modified genes on to their own children-- represent a far more difficult technical maneuver. Some influential geneticists are convinced that designer-baby technology, too, will be available within the next few decades. Together with a small but increasingly assertive bunch of biotech entrepreneurs, bioethicists, social theorists, and journalists, these scientists are avidly promoting a world in which affluent parents are as likely to arrange genetic enhancements for their children as to send them to private school.

Their vision is explicitly political as well as technical: They fully support an onslaught of consumer-driven eugenic engineering, anticipating and accepting that designer babies and their further enhanced progeny will come to constitute a powerful genetic aristocracy.

This loose alliance of designer-baby promoters believes that new genetic and reproductive technologies are both inevitable and a boon to humanity. They exuberantly describe near-term genetic manipulations--within a generation--that may increase resistance to diseases, "optimize" height and weight, and boost intelligence. Further off, but within the lifetimes of today's children, they foresee the ability to adjust personality, design new body forms, extend life expectancy, and endow hyper-intelligence. Some confidently predict splicing traits from other species into human children: In late 1999, for example, an ABC Nightline special on cloning speculated that genetic engineers would learn to design children with "night vision from an owl" and "supersensitive hearing cloned from a dog." (3)

Gregory Stock, a central figure in the campaign for designer babies that was launched in 1998, goes even further. Genetic enhancement technology, he says, "promises ... eventually to transform our very beings as ever more significant genetic changes are introduced into our genomes. This technology will force us to re-examine even the very notion of what it means to be human [as] we become subject to the same process of conscious design that has so dramatically altered the world around us." (4)

To anyone concerned about environmental degradation, skeptical about the unalloyed virtues of technoscience, dubious about the all-determining power of DNA, or unsure that elite scientists should be the ones to decide our future, Stock's words read more as threat than promise. His enthusiasm bespeaks a willful blindness to the unintended (though not unforeseeable) consequences of genetic enhancement technology. On the other hand, his brash confidence, and that of others eager to engineer a post-human future, does serve to clarify what's at stake.

The genetic and reproductive technologies that put designer babies on the near horizon open the door to "seizing control of human evolution." In the world that lies on the far side of that portal, parent-consumers will flock to fertility clinics to pick and choose offspring options from a list of traits said to be determined by DNA. As proponents of this "post-human" future openly acknowledge, since most designer children will be born to the well-off, the new technologies will significantly exacerbate socio-economic inequality.

How plausible are such scenarios? In this era of wildly overblown claims about the power of genes to determine everything from sexual orientation to thrill-seeking to homelessness, skepticism would seem the better part of futuristic prudence. (5) But this is also an era of dizzyingly rapid technoscientific change, and it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that scientists will achieve enough mastery over the human genome to wreak enormous damage--biologically, culturally, and politically.

Because human beings are far more than the product of genes--because DNA is one of many factors in human development--the feats of genetic manipulation eventually accomplished will turn out to be much more modest than what the designer-baby advocates predict. Nonetheless, their political vision is dangerously powerful. Marketing the ability to specify our children's appearance and abilities encourages a grotesque consumerist mentality toward children and all human life. Fostering the notion that only a "perfect baby" is worthy of life threatens our solidarity with and support for people with disabilities, and perpetuates standards of perfection set by a market system that caters to political, economic, and cultural elites. Channeling hopes for human betterment into preoccupation with genetic fixes shrinks our already withered commitments to improving social conditions and enriching cultural and community life. Promoting a future of genetically engineered inequality legitimizes the vast existing injustices that are socially arranged and enforced.

Varieties of Genetic Engineering: Crucial Distinctions

The only kind of genetic engineering currently practiced on human beings is experimental, and involves efforts to fix the genes of somatic (or body) cells in people with relatively rare health problems that reflect the functions of single genes. In about five hundred clinical trials since the early 1990s, doctors have tried to introduce genetic modifications to patients' lungs, nerves, muscles, and other tissues.

The 1999 death of an 18-year-old in one of these somatic gene therapy trials resulted in revelations of almost 700 "serious adverse effects" that researchers and doctors had somehow failed to report to the proper regulatory authorities. (6) But well before the safety of somatic gene therapy had been so tragically and starkly called into question, its effectiveness had begun to appear dubious. Even pioneer genetic engineer W. French Anderson now voices doubts, saying bluntly in 1998, "There is no evidence of a gene therapy protocol that helps in any disease situation." (7) At this point, "gene therapy" would more accurately be called "genetic experiments on human subjects."

Whether they work well or not at all, somatic gene manipulations affect only the individuals who undergo them. Designer-baby technology, more widely and formally known as "germline engineering" or "germline enhancement," targets embryos at the earliest stage of their development. Such genetic alterations would be replicated in every cell in the body of a child born after a germline procedure. Since the germ cells (reproductive cells) would also be affected, the child would pass any modified or added genes to future generations. The engineered DNA could thus become a permanent part of the human genetic legacy.

Many genetic scientists say they favor human germline engineering because it could allow people who carry serious genetic mutations to avoid passing them to their children. But this argument is disingenuous, since these scientists know full well that safer and simpler options are already available. Instead of attempting to engineer the human germline, by tampering with the genes of embryos created by in vitro fertilization, technicians can examine those embryos and transfer only unaffected ones to the body of the mother--a technique known as pre-implantation screening. Alternatively, people who carry genetic defects and prefer to avoid IVF can use prenatal screening, with the option of abortion if necessary. Others who want a child will choose to adopt.

Prenatal and pre-implantation screening are themselves technologies that easily can be abused. Sex-selection abortions are already common in some parts of the world, especially India and China. Many disability rights activists point out that prenatal and pre-implantation screening constitute a form of eugenics, and fear that their widespread availability would encourage intolerance for anyone perceived as having a gene-associated "imperfection." They oppose human germline engineering, but do not accept prenatal or pre-implantation screening as an alternative to it. Other opponents of human germline engineering feel that these procedures are justifiable for the prevention of serious gene-associated disease. (8)

The bottom line, in any case, is that the medical justifications for human germline engineering are strained, while the medical, ethical, and political risks it poses are profound. Fortunately, the distinction between somatic and germline engineering is a clear technical demarcation. It provides a clear stopping point on a very slippery slope.

The Designer-Baby Vision: Is it Eugenics?

Many advocates of human germline engineering are abandoning their untenable claims about its medical benefits, and openly acknowledging that their real interest is in genetic enhancement. Yet most of them energetically reject the characterization of their project as "eugenics." Bioethicist Arthur Caplan, for example, asserts that "it is simply a confusion to equate eugenics with any discussion of germline therapy." (9)

There are, of course, significant differences between eugenic choices made voluntarily by parents, and eugenic mandates enforced by state-coerced sterilization (as in the United States in the early and mid-twentieth century) or state-sponsored genocide, as in Nazi Germany. As biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin puts it, "The old eugenics was steeped in political ideology and motivated by fear and hate. The new eugenics is being spurred by market forces and consumer desire." (10)

Richard Hayes, one of the first people to call attention to the accelerating push for germline engineering in the late 1990s, has coined the phrase "techno-eugenics" to describe this new phase. In "The Threat of the New Human Techno-Eugenics," Hayes writes:

"The single most portentous technological threshold in all of human history is close upon us: the ability of humans to deliberately modify the genes that get passed to our children....This vision of the human future celebrates...a world in which parents select their children's genes, literally from a catalogue, to give them an edge in the quest for `success.' It celebrates nothing less than the end of our common humanity, as we segregate into separate genetic castes and eventually separate species." (11)

Alarmist? Overwrought? Listen to the words of Lee Silver, one of the key players in the pro-germline engineering camp. Silver is a molecular geneticist and developmental biologist at Princeton University, and an unabashed promoter of consumer-driven "reprogenetic" technologies. After a few centuries of these practices, he believes, humanity will bifurcate into genetic ubermenschen and untermenschen--and not long thereafter into different species. (12) Here is Silver's prediction for the year 2350:

"The GenRich--who account for 10 percent of the American population--all carry synthetic genes. Genes that were created in the laboratory....The GenRich are a modern-day hereditary class of genetic aristocrats....All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by members of the GenRich class." (13)

How do the other 90 percent live? Silver is quite blunt on this point as well: "Naturals work as low-paid service providers or as laborers."

That rich and poor already live in biologically disparate worlds can be argued on the basis of any number of statistical measures: life expectancy, infant mortality, access to health care. Of course, medical resources and social priorities could be assigned to narrowing those gaps. But if the promoters of designer babies and human clones have their way, precious medical talent and funds will be devoted instead to a technically dubious project whose success will be measured by the extent to which it can inscribe inequality onto the human genome. The human genetic technologies will then serve to legitimize and expand injustice, to create a kind of inequity new in human history, and to make obsolete even rhetorical gestures toward equality. Silver writes:

"There is still some intermarriage as well as sexual intermingling between a few GenRich individuals and Naturals. But, ... as time passes, the mixing of the classes will become less and less frequent for reasons of both environment and genetics....If the accumulation of genetic knowledge and advances in genetic enhancement technology continue...the GenRich class and the Natural class will become the GenRich humans and the Natural humans--entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

Silver understands that such scenarios are disconcerting. He counsels realism: that is, he celebrates the free reign of the market and perpetuates the myth that private choices have no public consequences:

"Anyone who accepts the right of affluent parents to provide their children with an expensive private school education cannot use `unfairness' as a reason for rejecting the use of reprogenetic technologies....There is no doubt about it...whether we like it or not, the global marketplace will reign supreme."

When I first read Silver's book, I imagined that these sorts of bizarre prognostications must be the musings of an academic researcher indulging in mad-scientist mode. I soon learned differently. They are not ravings from the margins of modern science, but emanations from its prestigious and respected core. Silver vividly and accurately represents the techno-eugenic vision, a horrifyingly grandiose ideology shared by a disturbing number of Nobel laureate scientists and other influential professionals.

To some scientists, the lure of the technical ability to "enhance" human DNA is tantamount to its inevitability. Like many other technoscientific elites, eugenic engineers are deeply offended by suggestions that the direction or pace of their work should be subject to social controls. They are motivated by a technocratic utopianism similar to the impulse that has always motivated supporters of eugenics: the urge to engineer human "perfection" (as defined by one or another elite).

Proponents of germline enhancement have appropriated the phrase "brave new world," stripping it of the cautionary irony with which Aldous Huxley imbued it. Lee Silver, for example, used the phrase in the subtitle of Remaking Eden, which of course is itself a utopian reference. The exuberant techno-utopianism of the eugenic engineers will be especially seductive in an era when the values and visions of the democratic left are widely perceived as faded and tattered.

The techno-eugenicists believe that human nature is written in our DNA and can be rewritten by genetic engineers in the service of a better and brighter future. They insist that scientific research and development should be controlled by researchers themselves, working in a "free market" with minimal interference from regulators and certainly without democratic oversight, and that reproductive decisions should be subject to the logic of consumer culture and commodity production. In their techno-eugenic future, human beings will be engineered by "life sciences" corporations that own all the bits and pieces of the human genome; well-heeled consumers will compete for genetic superiority; and all of us will learn to tolerate unprecedented inequality between the genetically "advantaged" and "disadvantaged."

The Campaign for Human Germline Engineering

Explicit public advocacy of human germline engineering was triggered by the public-relations disaster that followed the surprise announcement, in early 1997, that agricultural scientists in Scotland had cloned a sheep. The birth of "Dolly," as she was dubbed by media-savvy researchers, did in fact represent a technical breakthrough: This was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult rather than from an embryonic cell.

But Dolly was also a cultural and ideological watershed. Surprise about the existence of a cloned sheep was dwarfed by disquiet over the prospect of a cloned person. Polls registered overwhelmingly negative public sentiment about human cloning: More than 90% of Americans opposed it.

From the Dolly episode, designer-baby crusaders took the lesson that they should start now to prepare the public for human germline engineering. This lesson was reinforced by the widespread hostility toward genetically modified food that had emerged as people suddenly discovered how much of it they were eating.

The techno-eugenicists lost no time in jump-starting their campaign. Their kick-off event, organized by Gregory Stock and neurobiologist John Campbell, was a symposium called "Engineering the Human Germline." (14) Its goal, Stock explained, was to make germline engineering "acceptable" to the public. Held in March 1998 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), it attracted nearly a thousand people. James Watson, Lee Silver, W. French Anderson, former Science editor Daniel Koshland, and other scientific luminaries proclaimed the virtues and inevitability of germline enhancement of the human species. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major newspapers echoed these conclusions in front-page coverage. "The question is not if, but when and how," the conference report stated.

Just a few months later, W. French Anderson--who won a reputation for strategic brilliance and confrontational gamesmanship while spearheading the late 1980s push for somatic genetic engineering--made a move designed to "force the debate" on germline engineering. Anderson formally submitted to the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) -- the committee of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that oversees new uses of genetic engineering -- a proposal asking for permission to try gene therapy on fetuses that had been shown by prenatal tests to have a condition called adenosine deaminase (ADA) deficiency, a fatal childhood disease. Anderson called the experimental procedure he was proposing somatic therapy, but freely acknowledged that it was likely to "inadvertently" modify the developing germ cells of the treated fetuses. (15)

Anderson's move and its significance were duly noted by the popular media. But most of the coverage hewed closely to the agenda of the germline engineers. Within months, both Newsweek (November 8, 1998) and Time magazines (January 11, 1999) had run articles titled "Designer Babies." Nearly every article included the requisite queasy quote from a bioethicist, but drastically under-reported both the social vision that underlies germline engineering and the range of arguments against it. The media treated Anderson's proposal as a spectacular but nonetheless by-the-book example of scientific progress. In fact, it was an object lesson in science-as-public-relations, a gambit carefully designed to provide the NIH with a narrow procedural cover for giving its go-ahead, and to trump all doubts by evoking the real and terrible suffering of (the very few) ADA-deficient children.

Since Dolly, the UCLA symposium, and Anderson's proposal, designer babies and human clones have indeed become more thinkable, and far more frequently discussed in the U.S. popular media. Favorable and prominent coverage has appeared on network television, in national news and popular science magazines, in books for young readers. (16)

Even Francis Fukuyama, the pundit renowned for proclaiming the "end of history" in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, has chimed in. Fukuyama now believes that "biotechnology will be able to accomplish what the radical ideologies of the past, with their unbelievably crude techniques, were unable to accomplish: to bring about a new type of human being." Soon, he writes, "we will have definitively finished human History because we will have abolished human beings as such. And then, a new posthuman history will begin." (17)

Despite this spate of publicity, few people realize that an orchestrated campaign for public acceptance of human clones and designer babies is underway. Nor are they aware how tightly these technologies are bound to a grandiose political vision of market-based eugenics and genetically engineered inequality.

The only forum in which human cloning and germline manipulation have been debated in a sustained way is in the literature of academic bioethics. The bioethicists have devoted a great deal of thought to benefits and harms to parents who want cloned or enhanced children, to the children who are cloned or enhanced, and to the researchers who want to produce them. They tend to give less consideration to the political and social dimensions. Thus the bioethics debate is strong on issues of safety, informed consent, reproductive rights, individual identity, family relationships, the right to an unaltered genetic endowment (or to an improved one), and the right to "play God" or "tamper with Nature." It is weak on questions of ownership and control of genetic and reproductive research and technologies; the commodification of children, women, reproduction, and the human genome; the exacerbation of social and economic inequality; and the ideological consequences of the techno-eugenic vision.

As sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman puts it, the job of bioethicists is to mediate "between biomedical science and research on the one hand, and the concerns of the public on the other. But with all the power and the big money in the hands of science, bioethics becomes a translator, sometimes an apologist, sometimes an enabler, of scientific `progress.'" (18)

An effective opposition to the techno-eugenic vision will have to challenge both the allegiances of the bioethicists and their political analysis. But that is just one task among many for critics of a designer-baby future.

Designer-Baby Technology: The State of the "Art"

Some of the new genetic and reproductive technologies are already on offer in fertility clinics and doctors' offices. Others are being tested in petri dishes or animals in university, government, or corporate labs. Plans to study and develop far more powerful techniques are being made; some of these may ultimately turn out to be projections of scientists' informed but wishful or frenzied imaginations.

As far as is known, no one has tried to transfer a genetically altered human embryo into a woman's womb. Genetic manipulation of animals, plants, and bacteria, however, is routine. Transgenic organisms have foreign genes not only transferred into their cells, but stably incorporated into their germlines: They bequeath their new or manipulated DNA to all subsequent generations.

Germline engineering in non-human animals has become fairly common. Genetic researchers have produced animal chimeras, including hybrid animals like the "geep" whose cells contain and express the genes of both a goat and a sheep. Since 1982 they have been engineering larger-than-normal mice by splicing in human genes that produce human growth hormone. In 1999 researchers at Princeton created a strain of mice said to have enhanced memories. Other genetic engineers have learned to inject human DNA into the fertilized eggs of cows, sheep, goats, and pigs, creating animals that secrete human insulin, human blood-clotting proteins, and human enzymes in their milk.

The success rate of such procedures, however, remains very low. Most genetic engineering in animals takes advantage of the ability of certain viruses to insert themselves into a host organism's DNA. Scientists modify these "viral vectors" by removing the genetic sequences that cause disease, and adding the genetic sequences they want to insert into the host cell. But the chromosomal location at which the viral vector lands is essentially random. An inserted gene can introduce all sorts of errors into the genome, causing unpredictable problems for the transgenic animal. Depending on whether or where the new gene is incorporated, it can fail to express the proteins it is intended to produce, or disrupt normal cell functioning.

Biologists are far from being able to predict how such manipulations will interact with other genes, or with cellular or systemic mechanisms. Adding or changing multiple genes, necessary for the ambitious kinds of engineering that the techno-eugenicists envision, will doubtless be far more difficult and unpredictable. Today, researchers manipulate hundreds or thousands of embryos before producing a single viable animal that exhibits the intended genetic change. Many of the "mistakes" either fail to develop at all, develop abnormally and die before birth, or are born with mild or serious disabilities. (19)

A decade ago, when researchers were struggling to get governmental approval for somatic procedures, they offered repeated assurances that they wouldn't even consider germline modifications until somatic therapies were shown to be safe and effective. Now that such procedures have proved ineffective, conventional wisdom among geneticists is that working on early embryos is the way to go. University of Utah geneticist Mario Capecchi, who first produced "knock-out" mice with targeted genes inactivated, stated in 1998 that "germline therapy is...actually much simpler than somatic gene therapy." (20)

Formidable technical obstacles remain, but some designer-baby advocates are convinced that solutions are in view. Many pin their hopes on the development of human artificial chromosomes (HACs). These synthetic "microchromosomes" are "assembled from individually isolated components of naturally occurring chromosomes." Geneticists believe that HACs may overcome the delivery problems and the limited capacity of viral vectors, allowing them both to avoid interfering with natural chromosomes, and to put into one package the multiple genes that would be needed to produce most traits. (21)

Researchers have already synthesized and inserted artificial chromosomes into mice; in October 1999, Chromos Molecular Systems announced that mice thus engineered had passed the artificial chromosomes to their offspring. (22) Researchers have also put HACs into human cells outside the body. Some have remained stable for six months, faithfully replicating with the rest of the chromosomes when the cultured cells divide.

Introducing an additional chromosome would likely be disastrous for a developing embryo. Even if such a manipulation was "successful" in the short term, its implications could be enormous. Would a person with extra chromosomes be able to have children with someone whose DNA hadn't been similarly modified? Would the children and grandchildren of artificial-chromosome parents eventually develop problems, or change their minds about the alterations that the artificial chromosomes produced?

Proponents of germline engineering have countered concerns about the inheritance of germline manipulations by future generations by proposing various technical fixes. Conceding that heritability "would be an undesirable property for the germline modifications envisioned today," Gregory Stock describes a proposal by Mario Capecchi for "non-heritable germline therapy." Capecchi believes that germline engineers could devise an external signal that would deactivate or dismantle the artificial chromosomes in a genetically engineered person's germ cells, so that the modifications would not be passed on to the next generation.

The reasoning and rhetoric in Stock's description of this plan are instructive. "By the time recipients of even the best engineered chromosome are ready to have children," he wrote, "it will be twenty or thirty years after they themselves were conceived. Their once state-of-the-art artificial chromosome will be hopelessly out-of-date, and they'll want to give their child the latest gene cassettes and artificial chromosomes. It's not so different from upgraded software; they'd want the new release." (23)

Human Cloning: Prerequisite for Designer Babies

The ability to clone human embryos is a technical prerequisite for the effective production of designer babies. Reproductive cloning--creating a cloned child from an existing person--would not be technically necessary. But it would constitute an important cultural and ideological breakthrough toward a designer-baby world. The techno-eugenicists recognize this point; as usual, they are blunt in explaining it. "[H]uman cloning is most significant as a symbol," Stock writes. "Whether or not human cloning is banned will have little impact...because biotechnology is racing ahead on a broad front." (24)

Stock's assertion is, in effect, a brush-off of the cloning brouhaha that has engulfed biotechnologists. The wave of repugnance that greeted the Dolly-inspired prospect of human clones prompted repeated assurances from many scientific quarters that no responsible researcher or fertility doctor would attempt to clone a child "at this time." Biotech companies that clone stem cells taken from human embryos for their research in areas such as transplantation, cancer, and longevity have staked out this position quite forcefully. Fearful of restrictive regulations, they take great pains to draw a sharp line between reproductive cloning and cloning that would not result in the creation of a human being.

Not a few scientists and bioethicists, however, openly support human cloning as a reproductive method. To be sure, they distance themselves from the likes of Richard Seed, the Chicago physicist turned biologist who announced with great fanfare in January 1998 that he would soon open a cloning clinic. The "responsible" advocates of human reproductive cloning characterize Seed as a renegade publicity-seeker, and acknowledge that human cloning must be proven safe before it is used. They patiently explain that worries about tyrants replicating themselves or mass-producing super-soldiers are exaggerated.

Many people have come to realize that these horror scenarios are indeed beside the main point. They understand now, if they didn't before Dolly, that a cloned child would not be an exact copy of the person who supplied the original genome. Almost by definition, the clone would be born into a different world, raised differently, surrounded by different people. She would not even be biologically identical to the person from whom she was cloned because of differences in the uterine environment in which she was gestated, random developmental variations, differences in mitochondrial DNA, and other biological deviations. Setting straight this "confusion over cloning," as Richard Lewontin terms it, has provided a valuable corrective to simplistic varieties of genetic reductionism. (25)

Advocates of reproductive cloning argue that it would "cure" some difficult cases of infertility, provide an option for people who might pass an undesired gene to their children, allow gay and lesbian couples to have genetically related children, and allow people without partners to have children with no "foreign" genes. In fact, other less ethically problematic reproductive procedures are available for all these situations. What reproductive cloning does provide is a way to have a child who is genetically related to you, but to no one else--an unusual requirement.

Before Dolly, most scientists--even those working in the fields of genetics, embryology, and developmental biology--had believed that producing a clone from an adult was impossible. Repeated experimental efforts had convinced them that once cells have specialized (as had the mammary cell in the Dolly example; as has almost any somatic cell beyond the earliest embryonic stages), they no longer have the potential to "de-differentiate" and give rise to a complete organism. This long-presumed inability to clone animals from adults was a major barrier to the commercial production of genetically engineered animals, which is why Wilmut and his colleagues had been working on it. Somatic nuclear transfer, the method used to clone Dolly, allows the mass production of valuable genetically designed animals: Entire herds can be cloned from the rare transgenic successes that scientists manage to create.

In humans, of course, the goal is quite different. The demand that the techno-eugenicists are trying to stimulate and satisfy is for the "perfect baby"--the genetically engineered child designed for gourmet parental sensibilities. Accordingly, the genetic and reproductive techniques appropriate for human germline engineering would diverge a bit from those used in livestock.

Researchers would start with an embryo a week or so old. At this stage, human embryos contain several dozen "stem cells," none of which have begun to differentiate or specialize, each theoretically capable of developing into a complete person. Breaking the embryo apart, the researchers would put each stem cell into a petri dish. There they would attempt their DNA manipulations, adding, deleting, or modifying genes, or inserting artificial chromosomes.

Researchers would then coax each manipulated stem cell to divide without differentiation, yielding colonies of identically modified embryonic stem cells. Removing a few cells from each colony, they would test to determine which had been "successfully" altered--though in fact there would be no way to determine "success" at this stage. The researchers would then fuse one of the engineered embryonic stem cells with an enucleated human egg, creating a new single-celled zygote. If all went according to plan, this zygote would begin to divide, differentiate, and develop into a human embryo. Implanted into a woman's womb, it would grow into a genetically engineered child--a designer baby.

Who Owns Human Cloning?

The distinction between the procedures for germline engineering and human reproductive cloning can be summarized like this: For a cloned baby, use the Dolly technique--take a cell from the person you want to clone, then transfer the nucleus to an emptied-out egg. To make a designer baby, take a cell from an early embryo, tweak, and then transfer the nucleus.

As it happens, patents for pieces of both procedures are held by the Geron Corporation, a small California biotech company. Based on work done by its in-house scientists, Geron owns exclusive rights to the use of human embryonic stem cells. It also owns a piece of somatic nuclear transfer since its purchase in May 1999 of Roslin Bio-Med, the for-profit company established by the not-for-profit Roslin Institute (home of Dolly) and British venture capitalists. Geron says it will use these patented technologies to develop new transplantation methods, its stated core business interest.

So who now controls the technology to clone human beings? This question was almost never asked in all the hoopla surrounding Dolly. It was left to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian-based non-governmental organization, to determine that the Roslin Institute's original patent on the procedure covers all animals--including humans. RAFI found that "while some other biotech companies...have worded their patents to specifically exclude humans, the Roslin patents deliberately make no such exclusion." Spokespeople at the Roslin Institute told RAFI that they have no commercial interest in human cloning, and no moral tolerance of it. They said that the inclusion of humans in their patents "would ensure that nobody else could lay claim to human cloning." But as RAFI argued at the time, the sincerity of the Roslin Institute's intentions is not the issue. "The ethics and fate of human cloning is not a matter to be entrusted to the Roslin Institute," said RAFI's Hope Shand. (26)

When the Roslin Institute spun off Roslin Bio-Med, it wrote a licensing agreement that explicitly excluded human reproductive cloning. Presumably, then, Geron's rights to the Roslin Institute's cloning technology are also limited by that license: Geron can clone animal embryos and fully formed animals; it can clone human embryos; but it cannot clone people.

How close are we to the day when we wake up to headlines announcing the birth of a cloned human? Informed answers range from "very far off" to "any day." It took Wilmut and his team 277 tries to produce a live cloned sheep. (27) Since then, researchers in Honolulu working with mice and a slightly different technique have reduced that ratio somewhat. Other biotechnologists, vying to perfect cloning by somatic nuclear transfer, have found a variety of serious medical problems in the cloned animals and the mothers pregnant with them. Some of the mothers have died. In some species a "large offspring syndrome" has been noted. Other clones have been born with placental and umbilical cord abnormalities, severe immunological deficiencies, anemia, organ deformities, or retarded development. (28)

In addition, researchers have yet to figure out whether clones will be "born old." Reports that Dolly's chromosomes are older than she is--they look to be about the age of the sheep from whom she was cloned--were widely published. But this may not prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, for several reasons. First, though her chromosomes are prematurely aged, Dolly appears normal. Second, Geron is working on a technique that they believe will prevent the aging of chromosomes in humans as well as other animals. The implications for human health and longevity are unknown.

Making the Case Against Designer Babies

Arguments about safety and risk will be important in building an opposition to human cloning and designer babies. If current practices in the fertility and biotech businesses are any indication, it won't be hard to argue convincingly that researchers and practitioners are moving ahead recklessly, putting commercial and competitive considerations ahead of human well-being.

The technologies to produce designer babies and human clones may turn out to be inherently unsafe, as is, for example, nuclear power. Or they may not. It is certain that a few years of tests in animals cannot definitively demonstrate safety. It is also certain that calls for assessing risks will be used to argue for more research and funding, rather than as reasons to forgo techno-eugenic goals. In any case, safety concerns are not the only reason to oppose germline engineering and human cloning. The strongest and most honest case against designer babies is an ethical and political one.

The policy arena is currently very much in flux. In the United States, neither federal law nor policy currently forbids germline engineering. The RAC, which would have to grant permission for federally funded work involving germline procedures (but which has no authority over other research), says only that it won't consider germline proposals "at this time."

The policy situation on human cloning in the U.S. is similar: No federal law actually forbids it, though federal moneys cannot be used. Bill Clinton issued an executive order declaring a five-year moratorium on human reproductive cloning in 1997. In 1998, Republican senators introduced legislation that would have prohibited both reproductive and embryo cloning. Democrats who wanted to exempt embryo cloning for research purposes introduced a bill that would have banned only reproductive human cloning. The Republican proposal was defeated, and the Democratic bill never came to a vote. The FDA claims that it has authority to regulate human cloning, but it is required by law to evaluate only questions of safety and effectiveness, and is expressly forbidden from considering ethical or social concerns.

Many other countries are far more restrictive. Germany's Embryo Protection Act of 1990 makes human cloning and germline engineering criminal acts. A number of other European countries forbid cloning and germline engineering indirectly by outlawing non-therapeutic research on human embryos. As of 1998, 22 European countries had signed a Council of Europe bioethics convention that includes similar restrictions. The World Health Organization (WHO) supports a global ban on human cloning, though its recently released draft ethical guidelines on human germline engineering stop short of recommending a permanent ban. The UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome, which has been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, calls for global bans on both human cloning and germline engineering.

If the legal and regulatory framework covering designer-baby technologies is best described as uneven, activist engagement with these technologies can only be called--at least until very recently--low-level. But there have been some important exceptions. Nearly 20 years ago, Jeremy Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends organized a coalition of 58 scientists and religious leaders to call for a worldwide ban on human germline experiments. Their "Theological Letter Concerning the Moral Arguments," presented to the U.S. Congress on June 8, 1983, stated: "Genetic engineering of the human germline represents a fundamental threat to the preservation of the human species as we know it, and should be opposed with the same courage and conviction as we now oppose the threat of nuclear extinction." (29)

The religious coalition re-emerged and expanded to 200 members in 1995, issuing a statement opposing patents on animals and human materials. Though this statement did not explicitly mention germline engineering, many of the coalition members expressed concern that the U.S. policy of granting broad and vague patents on human tissues, genes, and cell lines could bolster economic incentives for germline "enhancement." (30)

The most consistent organizational presence in the opposition to human germline manipulation has been the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG). A Cambridge-based group composed mostly of biologists, attorneys, social scientists, public health advocates, women's health and disability rights activists, and physicians, CRG has played a key role in defining and promoting a public-interest agenda for biotechnology since its founding in 1983. CRG's Human Genetics Committee issued a position paper calling for a ban on human germline manipulation in 1992. In 1998, after learning of Anderson's RAC proposal, CRG sent out an alert; the RAC then received 70 pages of mostly negative public comments. (31)

Anderson's proposal also sparked the formation by David King and others in Britain of the Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering (CAHGE). CAHGE's mission is to widen the debate about human genetics, now "dominated by scientists, doctors, and a narrow group of academic ethicists," and "to bring both genetic research and its application under democratic control." (32)

In the U.S., organizing against techno-eugenics has begun to emerge. A group based in San Francisco, the Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies, has held a series of public meetings and workshops, established an on-line newsletter, and begun to alert and engage the constituencies and groups likely to be most concerned. (33)

The political challenge for those opposed to a world of designer babies is daunting. Success will require widespread recognition that eugenic engineering would both trample human rights and undermine inviolable commitments to social and economic equality. Eventually, a permanent global ban on human germline manipulation and reproductive cloning will be necessary. With that safeguard in place, opponents of techno-eugenics could actively support genetic technologies that actually may help alleviate human suffering, providing that they are developed in a manner consistent with safety, social justice, and democracy.

A global ban, of course, is a long-term goal. One of the first steps toward it is to craft a critical stance toward techno-eugenics that is politically effective, intellectually honest, and morally rich. We will need to articulate a position that simultaneously opposes genetic determinism and genetic reductionism, and recognizes the expanding powers of biological manipulation. We will have to make it clear that we are neither anti-science nor anti-progress, and that our opposition to eugenic engineering is fully compatible with our commitment to reproductive rights. We will need to challenge technoscientific hubris, elitism, and the sense of inevitability promoted by advocates of human germline engineering. We will have to establish that social control of technology is a human right and a democratic principle.

In our opposition to a future of eugenically engineered inequality, we must take care not to downplay or obscure the inequalities that plague the present. We will have to confront the disturbingly comfortable fit between the techno-eugenic vision and key features of contemporary culture: consumerism run wild, hyper-competitive individualism, ever-increasing privatization of public goods, and passivity in the face of technoscientific "progress."

Arguments against a designer-baby future that are based on qualms about "playing God" will not resonate with the secular. Objections to "tampering with Nature" will fail to persuade those who understand "nature" as a social category. It won't be easy to navigate the slippery slopes and fuzzy distinctions that characterize the new human genetic and reproductive technologies. But now that the techno-eugenicists are on the move, we urgently need a smart, broad-based campaign to protect what can be called, with chilling new meaning, a "human future."


1 Gregory Stock is Director of the UCLA Program on Science, Technology, and Society. He organized the March 1998 symposium Engineering the Human Germline, at which he made this comment. For a summary report of the symposium, see <www.ess.ucla.edu:80/huge>.

2 James Watson is co-discoverer of DNA structure (for which received a Nobel Prize) and former Director of the Human Genome Project. He made this comment at the Engineering the Human Germline symposium.

3 From the transcript of the program, which aired on August 19, 1999. Available from ABC News. .sp .5v 4 Gregory Stock, "The Prospects for Human Germline Engineering," January 29, 1999, <www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/co/2621/1.htm>.

5 A "gay gene" was announced in 1993 by a research team at the National Cancer Institute led by Dr. Dean Hamer. Researchers reported finding a genetic basis for thrill-seeking in 1996. The notion that homelessness is caused by genetic disease was the informed speculation of Daniel Koshland, a molecular biologist and former editor of the prestigious journal Science. ("Sequences and Consequences of the Human Genome," Science, October 13, 1989.) For critiques of genetic reductionism and determinism, see Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth, Boston: Beacon Press, 1993; and Richard Lewontin, Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA, New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. Also see Richard Strohman, "The Coming Kuhnian Revolution in Biology," Nature Biotechnology, Volume 15, March 1997, pages 194-200.

6 Rick Weiss and Deborah Nelson, "Victim's Dad Faults Gene Therapy Team," Washington Post, February 3, 2000.

7 W. French Anderson at the Engineering the Human Germline symposium, <www.ess.ucla.edu:80/huge>.

8 In India and China, prenatal screening to insure boy babies has become common. Demographers estimate 100 million "missing"--that is, aborted or killed--girls. "Sex-Selective Abortion," Bulletin Briefing from the Women's Health Education Program, Volume 1, Issue 5, November 1997. A new sex selection technology involving sperm sorting is now being used in the U.S., in spite of unknown risks to the resulting children. Lisa Belkin, "Getting the Girl," New York Times Magazine, July 25, 1999, pages 26-31, 38, 54-55. For more on disability rights and human genetic technologies, see Gregor Wolbring, Science and the Disadvantaged, The Edmonds Institute, 2000, <www.edmonds-institute.org>..

9 Arthur Caplan, "If Gene Therapy is the Cure, What is the Disease?" <www.med.upenn.edu/%7Ebioethic/genetics/articles/1.caplan.gene.therapy.html#pleaseleave>, 1992.

10 Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, 1999, page 128.

11 Richard Hayes, "The Threat of the New Human Techno-Eugenics," May 1999. Available from the Techno-Eugenics E-mail List newsletter, <[email protected]>.

12 Silver is not the first scientist to raise this prospect. In a 1966 article titled "Experimental Genetics and Human Evolution" (The American Naturalist, Sept.-Oct. 1966, pages 519-531), Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg "saw the need to look at...the status of clones as chimeras and `subhumans.'" Cited in James M. Humber and Robert F. Almeder, editors, Human Cloning, Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 1998. On the engineering of "inferior" humans, see Rachel Fishman, "Patenting Human Beings: Do Sub-Human Creatures Deserve Constitutional Protection?," American Journal of Law and Medicine, Vol. XV: No. 4, pages 461-482, 1993.

13 The following quotes are from Silver's popular account of a designer-baby future, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, New York: Avon Books, 1997, pages 4-11.

14 For the summary report and for the following quotes, see <www.ess.ucla.edu:80/huge>.

15 Rick Weiss, "Scientists Seek Panel's Advice on In-Womb Genetic Tests," Washington Post, September 25, 1998, page A2.

16 Examples include: ABC Nightline, August 19, 1999; David Jefferis, Cloning: Frontiers of Genetic Engineering, New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1999; Glenn Zorpette and Carol Ezzell, "Your Bionic Future," Scientific American Presents, Fall 1999 (Vol. 10, No. 3), page 5; Time magazine cover, "The I.Q. Gene?" September 13, 1999.

17 Francis Fukuyama, "Second Thoughts: The Last Man in a Bottle," The National Interest, Summer 1999, pages 16-33. (Quotes on pages 28 and 33.)

18 Barbara Katz Rothman, Genetic Maps and Human Imaginations: The Limits of Science in Understanding Who We Are, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, pages 35-39.

19 Consider, for example, the case of the pig, engineered to express human growth hormone, which turned out to be "[e]xcessively hairy, lethargic, riddled with arthritis, apparently impotent,...slightly cross-eyed [and] could hardly stand up." Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993, pages 175-176.

20 Mario Capecchi at the Engineering the Human Germline symposium, <www.ess.ucla.edu:80/huge>.

21 Huntington F. Willard, "Human Artificial Chromosomes Coming Into Focus," Nature Biotechnology, Volume 16, May, 1998, pages 415-416.

22 "A Safer Way of Altering Genes Will Make Engineering Humans More Tempting Than Ever," New Scientist, October 23, 1999.

23 Gregory Stock, "The Prospects for Human Germline Engineering," January 29, 1999, <www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/co/2621/1.htm>.

24 ibid.

25 R.C. Lewontin, "Confusion Over Cloning," The New York Review of Books, October 23, 1997.

26 "Dolly Goes to Market: World Patents on Sheep Clones Include Humans," RAFI press release, May 8, 1997 <www.rafi.org>.

27 "Voices from Roslin: The Creators of Dolly Discuss Science, Ethics, and Social Responsibility with Arlene Judith Klotzko," Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Volume 7, Number 2, Spring 1998, pages 121-140.

28 Rick Weiss, "Clone Defects Point to Need for Two Genetic Parents," Washington Post, May 10, 1999, <www.rage.org.nz/cloning-abnormalities.html>; Philip Cohen, "Bigger, not Better," New Scientist, January 23, 1999, <www.newscientist.com/nsplus/insight/clone/bigger.html>; Eddie Lau, "Dark Side of Cloning Perplexes Scientists," Sacramento Bee, August 18, 1999.

29 "Theological Letter Concerning the Moral Arguments," June 8, 1983, presented to the U.S Congress.

30 Rifkin has continued to write and speak about human genetic technologies, presenting his opposition most fully in his 1998 book The Biotech Century. Also see David Suzuki and Peter Knudston, Genethics: The Clash Between the New Genetics and Human Values, Harvard University Press, 1989, and Kimbrell, Maranto, and Rothman, all op. cit.

31 Contact CRG at 5 Upland Road, Suite 3, Cambridge, MA 02140 or <www.gene-watch.org>.

32 The CAHGE web site is <www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~cahge>.

33 To subscribe to this group's free on-line newsletter, moderated by Marcy Darnovsky and Richard Hayes, e-mail <[email protected]>.


home | overview | blog | publications| about us | donate | newsletter | press room | privacy policy

CGS • 1122 University Ave, Suite 100, Berkeley, CA 94702 • • (p) 1.510.665.7760 • (F) 1.510.665.8760