GATTACA Framing in the News

Posted by Osagie Obasogie June 18, 2009
Biopolitical Times

As someone who has been thinking and writing about the ethics of reproductive and genetic technologies for several years, some might find it a bit strange that I just saw the movie GATTACA for the first time last week. Perhaps I had been unconsciously avoiding it since it had been described to me as a cliché futuristic depiction of reprogenetics. But, it was ON DEMAND for free through my cable provider, so I figured why not take a look?

The basic premise of the movie is that in the “not so distant future,” baby making will largely occur through assisted reproduction and genetic screening that will produce superior offspring that will occupy society’s important roles; children produced the old fashioned way will be relegated to menial jobs such as janitors. Essentially, it’s the Gen-Rich vs. Naturals scenario laid out by Lee Silver in Remaking Eden. In the future, sex will be for fun while assisted reproduction will be for reproducing.

When I talk about these technologies to those unfamiliar with the issue, GATTACA is typically raised as a reference point to think through many of the social and ethical implications. GATTACA has cornered the imagination of popular culture much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World did a generation beforehand. It provides a dystopic narrative of human progress via technological advancement that clashes with the popular vision of unfettered science leading to human salvation.

There may be a few hints that this framing is now creeping from popular culture to how the news media understands these technologies. Earlier this month, the eighth World Collaborative Report on Assisted Reproductive Technology was published, showing that ART usage is rapidly increasing worldwide. These results were discussed widely in the news media, but one headline from the Windsor Star (a Canadian paper) was particularly striking: ‘Natural’ pregnancies lessen.

Of course, the fact that more people are using assisted reproduction doesn’t necessarily mean that it is suddenly becoming the preferred method of conception. It may only show that infertile couples are gaining access to technologies that may not have been accessible or available to them a few years ago. Indeed, there is little evidence to support the Windsor Star’s headline. But the GATTACA –esque framing of growing demographic shifts where implicitly ‘unnatural’ pregnancies are outpacing ‘natural’ ones leaves much to the imagination. Perhaps too much.

The writers at Biopolitical Times have long cautioned against media hyping and misreporting on scientific developments. While the media hype machine has overwhelmingly pushed the “science can only benefit society” narrative, we also have to be critical of premature hints at doomsday scenarios. However subtle and sporadic, they can be just as troublesome.