The designer baby debate could start a war

By Jamie Metzl | 23 April 2019

(Image by tookapic from Pixabay)

The genetics revolution that will transform our health care, the way we make babies, the nature of the babies we make, and ultimately our evolutionary trajectory as a species has already begun. Just like parents in many places will need to make tough choices about whether, if at all, to genetically engineer their children, states will be forced to make monumental collective decisions on these issues with potentially fateful consequences.

Imagine you are the leader of a society that has chosen to opt out of the genetic arms race by banning embryo selection and the genetic alteration of human sperm, eggs, and embryos. Because your country is progressive enough to make a collective decision like this, parents desiring these services are free to go elsewhere to get what they want. But preventing the genetic alteration of your population by definition requires both restricting genetic enhancement at home and enhanced people or expectant mothers carrying genetically altered embryos from entering your country.

To protect the genetic integrity of your populations and keep genetically enhanced people out, you would need to perform genetic tests on all people entering the country. But there would likely be no way of knowing whether a person had been genetically enhanced without knowledge of their genetic baseline—­their genome prior to any changes. For those few people for whom genetic information from the moment a few days after their conception is available, their former and current genetics could be compared. Everyone not able to provide baseline genetic information might be banned from entering the country or threatened with long jail terms for procreating with a citizen of it.

To prevent women from going abroad to have genetically engineered embryos implanted, pregnancy tests would need to be performed on all women of fertile age coming into your country. Prenatal blood tests would then need to be performed on the pregnant women to try to guess if the embryos had been manipulated in some way. Even with a list of the most fashionable genetic alterations, this would be all but impossible. To be effective, these types of blood and prenatal tests would probably need to be accompanied by a polygraph asking pregnant women if they are carrying a genetically enhanced embryo.

If someone already in the country was identified as enhanced, what penalties could possibly be meted out? Even if enhanced people were stripped of their citizenship and exiled for giving birth to a genetically enhanced person, their children would also need to be imprisoned, banned from procreating, or exiled. Enforcing any of this would require building the oversight machinery of the most totalitarian, intrusive, abusive, and downright odious police state with the ability to track peoples’ movements and continually monitor their biology and that of their children.

The consequences of opting out of genetic enhancement

But let’s say your country has done all this and become a preserve of non-genetically enhanced people. We’ve already seen why different states will adopt advanced genetic engineering technologies at different rates based on the significant historical, cultural, and structural differences between them. Imagine you are assessing your country’s options in a world where your country has opted out but other countries are moving forward with human genetic enhancement. Here are your general choices:

Option 1: You recognize that your country has made a moral decision based on your collective values and accept facing the consequences, even if this means your country will gradually lose its competitive advantage and future generations will be less healthy, live shorter lives, and have fewer superstars of various sorts. You sit tight in your belief you’ve made the right choice. With schadenfreude in your heart, you hope your national decision will give you a competitive advantage if and when human genetic enhancement proves to be less beneficial and more dangerous than initially believed. Because your country has taken such a strong and principled stand on human genetic engineering, you feel duty­bound to protect this ban against encroachment. You are a progressive in your heart but recognize you’ll need some trappings of a police state to maintain your country’s genetic purity. How is it, you ask yourself late at night, that an idealist like you is starting to adopt the language of Nazism?

Option 2: You try to hold the line and support your national decision but feel the pressure growing. Many of your most talented people are leaving the country to get the genetic enhancement services they want. Your un-enhanced aspiring Olympic athletes and advanced coders are becoming community organizers, yogis, and nurses instead, pursuing careers that don’t require competition with their enhanced counterparts. Parents are having second thoughts about your ban as they hear about kids in other countries who are immune to genetic diseases, doing better on IQ tests, and achieving all sorts of seemingly superhuman feats. Your military is worried your future soldiers will be at a disadvantage compared to their genetically enhanced adversaries. The leaders of your national space program tell you that your un-enhanced astronauts will, unlike their enhanced counterparts from other countries, not be able to withstand the radiation exposure and bone density loss of extended space travel. Opting out is seeming less appealing an option. You need a face-saving alternative. You call for a national referendum. After a heated debate, you cast your vote to opt in.

Option 3: You see the benefits of genetic enhancement, but your citizens still believe meddling with the human genome and rewriting biology is a form of hubris likely to end badly. As a matter of principle, you recognize that societies, like people, are diverse and don’t begrudge the many other choices different societies make in all sorts of areas. But this is different. If other societies genetically enhance their populations and yours doesn’t, you may not just be at a competitive disadvantage in the future. You may not be able to protect your population from the very thing they have so adamantly opposed. Just like genetically modified crops spread into adjacent fields and gene-drived mosquitoes spread across national boundaries, there will be really no way to protect your population from inheriting what you see as unnatural genetic modifications unless other countries can be prevented from allowing the most egregious modifications. Your only option is not just for your country to opt out but to define, promote, and seek to enforce limits on genetic enhancement for all countries to follow. You ask your top advisers how you can make this happen.

First on their list is trying to use your national powers of persuasion to convince people and countries around the world that the downsides of human genetic enhancement outweigh the benefits. But what are the chances of your being able to convince the whole world to buy into your pessimism, particularly when other societies are enthusiastically racing forward into the genetics age?

Second, you can try to build an alliance of like-minded states to collectively pressure other countries to limit genetic enhancement. Getting an enforceable global treaty to limit genetic enhancement is an appealing option, but it’s difficult to do. Most global leaders agree that human-induced climate change is threatening the livability of our planet, but we’ve not been able to get an enforceable global treaty to turn things around. Could a global effort limiting a technology many people and other states support be more effective than the high-­profile efforts to limit climate change?

Third, you identify the enhancing countries you are most concerned about and, if you have the power and influence to do it, try to stop them to set an example. One Central Asian country in particular has become a hub for highly aggressive genetic alterations of pre-implanted embryos designed to create superhuman capabilities. Parents are sending their frozen eggs and sperm, or skin grafts and blood samples from which these sex cells are being generated, to this country for embryo selection, embryo mating, and genetic enhancement. (This is not unthinkable. A 2014 New York Times article described a Chinese parent who sought to have six children born from US-­based surrogates to then choose the “pick of the litter” and put the others up for adoption.) For the Central Asian country, building this industry is seen as a moral imperative, a great business opportunity, and a strategic boon. You ask them nicely to stop. They refuse.

Perhaps you try getting a group of countries to impose travel, economic, or other sanctions on the offending country. If none of these approaches work, are you willing to use military force to stop the genetic alteration of the human species? It’s certainly one option on the list.

Over the course of the 20th century, an estimated 170 countries were invaded by others for a whole host of reasons, ranging from outright theft to ideological differences to pre-emption of a wide range of perceived threats. Is it so outlandish to believe that countries in the future might resort to military force to prevent other countries from altering the shared genetic code of humanity? Many countries have been invaded for far less.

Military force would be an option if advanced genetic enhancement were only being carried out in a relatively weak country or even in international waters or space. But what happens if a powerful country like China takes the lead in deploying advanced genetic and other technology to enhance the capabilities of its populations while another country, say the United States, has entirely opted out for political and other reasons? Would the United States and China be willing to use as much force over the potential transformation of our species as they are now threatening over a few contested reefs in the middle of the South China Sea?

If all of these types of competitive pressures on the personal, communal, and national levels were rare in our human experience, an argument could be made that they could be avoided in the context of the genetics revolution. But because competition has been at the very core of our evolutionary process for almost 4 billion years, the overwhelming odds are that these same drivers will push us, unevenly but collectively, into our brave new world of increasingly sophisticated human genetic engineering.

Both the competitive pressures pushing human genetic engineering forward and the potential conflict scenarios this competition is likely to spark are very real. If we do nothing to apply our best values to influence how the genetic revolution plays out, we will place ourselves on a path to conflict. Avoiding worst-case scenarios will require our species to come together as never before.

That’s why we need to take some very practical first steps now. Every individual needs to educate themselves on the revolutionary technologies transforming the world around and within us and join national and global conversations about how these technologies can be most responsibly applied. Government leaders need to stop wasting so much time on nonsense and begin focusing far more on facing the critical challenges of the future. We need to develop global norms that can lead to standards and dynamic international protocols designed to encourage the most beneficial applications of these technologies and prevent the worst abuses.

Figuring out how to deploy genetic technologies in ways that enhance our dignity and respect for each other will require us to draw on the best of our humanist values and double down on our embrace of, respect for, and investment in our diversity, equality, and common humanity. While the genetic engineering technologies are new, the values and philosophies we will need to use them wisely are often very old.

Deploying our best values at this transitional moment for our species demands that we all understand what is happening now, what is coming, what’s at stake, and the role we each must play in building a technologically enhanced future that works for all of us.

It will be a difficult, painful, and conflict-ridden process, but we have no alternative. We all need to participate.

We don’t have a moment to lose in getting started.

This is an edited excerpt from Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, which is out now.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Jamie Metzl is a member of the World Health Organization expert advisory committee on developing global standards for the governance and oversight of human genome editing and a former US National Security, State Department, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and United Nations official. His book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity was released in April. His website is Follow him on Twitter @JamieMetzl.

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