Monday, March 2, 2009

Choosing a Gene

Thanks to Kevin Wozniak, I just became aware of the next step in genetic engineering -- a step which my novels have used for years. The L.A. Fertility Institutes, run by Dr. Jeff Steinberg, now lets prospective parents choose such traits as eye and hair color for their babies.

For years fertility clinics have scanned fertilized embryos for inherited diseases. Because the procedure of in vitro fertilization is expensive and iffy, several embryos are usually created at the same time. The embryos are then scanned for such diseases as Huntingdon's Chorea and Tay-Sachs, as well as for sex selection (in the United States, there is a slight preference for girls). It makes sense if, out of six embryos, five are free of a potentially crippling disease, to choose and implant one (or more) of those. No one objects to this.

Plenty of people, however, object to the step currently available at this California clinic, which is to select for non-health-related traits. These people are crying "Slippery slope!" and "Designer babies!" and "Eugenics!" -- the latter bearing "master race" overtones. However, I really cannot see what the fuss is about. Everything anyone does can be construed as a slippery slope. Choosing green eyes or red hair does not constitute a master race -- and, like those critics who predicted that sex selection would result in a glut of American boys, predictions are often wrong. Brown eyes and dark hair may be selected for as much as blue-eyed blonds. This procedure will be used by a vanishingly small percentage of people, those couples afflicted with infertility who can afford the clinic.

I remember the fuss over the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown, born in 1978. Editorials protested "playing God" and "creating monsters." Now there are tens of thousands of people born from in vitro fertilization (you may be one of them if you were born after 1978). This is how change happens: Each step provokes screaming, then acceptance seeps slowly in -- until the next step.


Tim of Angle said...

"It makes sense if, out of six embryos, five are free of a potentially crippling disease, to choose and implant one (or more) of those. No one objects to this."

And the step after that is to destroy the embryos not implanted. Plenty of people object to that.

"This is how change happens: Each step provokes screaming, then acceptance seeps slowly in -- until the next step."

That's certainly the way it happened with the Nuremberg Laws. All change is not necessarily good.

Daniel said...

That post SO reminds me of Gattaca... :)

Nancy Kress said...

My problem with Gattica is that it assumes a uniform, planet-wide society -- a ridiculous idea -- that can agree on what is "best" in genes, appearance, beliefs, etc. Never happen.

No, of course not all change is good. But it's not bad, either, just because it's different.

Orion said...

We may not have a glut of boys in America, but the prediction is beginning to come true in India. As soon as it was possible to screen a fetus in utero, ostensibly to check for any genetic diseases, parents started to do so in large numbers.

What they did with that information is telling. Female fetuses are typically aborted, regardless of their health, whereas male fetuses are typically carried to term, regardless of their health. In terms of live births overall for the country, the sex ratio as of 2001 had dropped to 945 female births for every 1000 male births. This is despite the fact that sexual selection is illegal in India; it's not even legal for a doctor to inform the parents of a fetus's gender in the first place. Yet the laws are not enforced, and the practice is widespread.

It's a dangerous thing to be messing with. Nobody seems to think it through. OK, so your culture values boys as an asset and devalues girls as a liability. But it also values marriage and children. How do you reconcile these values? Just who are all those excess boys supposed to settle down with?

India is not alone. Parts of China have achieved female:male birth ratios of 700:1000 thanks to selective abortion and neonatal infanticide. On the surface this might seem like a good thing, as China has one of the worst population problems on the planet, and having fewer women of childbearing age in the next generation will perforce cut down on the number of births. But what happens when women are in short supply? Do they become valued members of the community once more, or simply valuable property, because of their scarcity? What happens to the 30% or so of the men of that generation who will have no chance to marry?

Having millions of young men with no prospects for a partner sounds like a recipe for social unrest to me.

Nancy Kress said...

Orion-- I agree with you that China's gender imbalance is a time bomb, and it could go either way with regard to womwen's status: more valued (as in the American old West -- there's a reason Wyoming was the first state to grant the vote to women) or viewed as property.

Mark said...

Orion: Like most technology, birth selection can (and has) changed societies. Not necessarily a bad thing, but one that is hard for many to feel comfortable with. Technology can also change a species physically. After hominids invented knives & cooking we didn't need strong jaws anymore.

Daniel (& Tim?): As for "Gattaca", it was a good movie that I liked but didn't entirely agree with, message wise. What if Beethoven had been born into a healthier body? Can o' Wyrms alert!