We Shouldn’t Worry About “Designer Babies”
Jacob M. Appel is a bioethicist and fiction writer. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
Appel has also published short fiction in more than one hundred literary journals. His short story, Shell Game With Organs, won the Boston Review Short Fiction Contest in 1998. His story about two census takers, "Counting," was shortlisted for the O. Henry Award in 2001. Other stories received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006 and 2007.
He is admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.
Appel contributed a Dangerous Idea to Big Think's "Month of Thinking Dangerously," advocating that we add trace amounts of lithium to our drinking water to help reduce the suicide rate.
Appel is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: Why do you advocate pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of babies fertilized in vitro?
Jacob Appel: I think we make an arbitrary distinction between embryos before they are implanted, or fetuses before they are born, and children once they're born. There are certain conditions you could never enforce upon a child once it was born. You could never, for example, say I have a child who hears, but I am deaf and deaf culture is important to me, so I'm going to puncture my child's ear drums. Child Protective Services would show up at your doorstep tomorrow and take that child away.
However, under our current system, you can go to a fertility clinic and ask the doctor to screen your embryos to make sure that you have a deaf embryo, rather than a hearing embryo implanted. To me doing that is just as much child abuse as puncturing your child's ear drums.
Question: Does such screening create a slippery slope toward the engineering of “designer babies”?
Jacob Appel: I think if the slope is slippery there are far more level places on it. I think that once simple distinction between the procedures we would require or strongly encourage and those really to remain neutral on, or oppose, would be if there are conditions that modern medicine currently tries to cure. If they are, for example, conditions that Medicare or Medicaid would cover gives us a fairly bright line distinction. There is no Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement for getting a nose job to look more handsome, or having your eye color changed. In contract, few people would say that cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia aren't sufficiently handicapping diseases that if we could prevent them in utero, or in vitro, we should do.
That being said, I have no particular qualms with designer babies. I think the reality is that even if designer babies, so to speak, were available, not many people would make that choice, and the result would only be enhancement for those individuals who chose them and no harm to anybody else. It seems to me there isn't that much difference between getting your child and SAT tutor and getting him into a good college, making him a little bit more intelligent before they're born. In some ways you can save money in SAT tutoring if you put the effort in early on.
Question: Should we worry that engineering some genetic traits in babies might deprive them of others?
Jacob Appel: Well, I think it's no different than child rearing the introduction of one trait, or just be the child's ability to do other things. We, for example, give children anti-depressants if they're depressed. You want them to be happy. And they may be happy, but they might be less creative, and that's a trade off we let parents make. I think we want to maximize the autonomy individual parents have. The one caveat would be if we're going to induce some kind of birth defect or some kind of severe handicap in these children, we would want to intervene and stop that from happening. We do want to make sure they don't step below a certain floor. The advantage we have is both parents and fertility clinics are deeply vested in keeping whatever we create as a result of these interventions from stepping below that floor. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of parents who are embracing these new technologies are also parents who are willing to terminate a pregnancy if it doesn't work out the way they want. People who embrace one technology tend to embrace most modern technologies. So the risk of producing severely impaired children is actually far lower.
Recorded on March 1, 2010
Interviewed by Austin \r\nAllen
In vitro babies should be pre-screened for severe birth defects, argues Jacob Appel. If this creates a slippery slope, parents can find "level places on it" (and maybe save money on SAT tutors).
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.
The WashU electrolyzer<iframe src='https://mars.nasa.gov/layout/embed/model/?s=6' width='800' height='450' scrolling='no' frameborder='0' allowfullscreen></iframe><p>The WashU electrolyzer—it has no snappy acronym yet—will not be the first device capable of extracting oxygen from Martian water. That honor goes to the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or <a href="https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/spacecraft/instruments/moxie/" target="_blank">MOXIE</a>, which is en route to Mars onboard NASA's <a href="https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/" target="_blank">Perseverance</a> rover. The rover was launched on July 30, 2020. It will arrive on February 18, 2021, and will perform high-temperature <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrolysis_of_water" target="_blank">electrolysis</a> to extract pure oxygen, but no hydrogen.</p><p>In addition to being able to capture hydrogen, the WashU system can even do a better job with oxygen than MOXIE can, extracting 25 times as much from the same amount of water.</p><p>The new system has no problem with Mars' magnesium perchlorate-laced water. On the contrary, the researchers say it ultimately makes their system work better since such high concentrations of salt keep water from freezing on such a cold a planet by lowering the liquid's freezing temperature to -60 °C. He adds it may "also improve the performance of the electrolyzer system by lowering the electrical resistance."</p><p>Cold itself is no issue for the WashU system. It's been tested in a sub-zero (-33 ⁰F, or -36 ⁰C) environment that simulates Mars'.</p><p>"Our novel brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0926337318311299" target="_blank">ruthenate pyrochlore</a> <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anode" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">anode</a> developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathode" target="_blank">cathode</a>," explains Ramani. He adds, "These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance."</p>
Back home<p>"This technology is equally useful on Earth where it opens up the oceans as a viable oxygen and fuel source," Ramani notes. His colleagues forsee potential applications such as producing oxygen in deep-sea habitats with ample water available, such as underwater research facilities and submarines.</p><p>The study's joint first author Pralay Gayen says that "having demonstrated these electrolyzers under demanding Martian conditions, we intend to also deploy them under much milder conditions on Earth to utilize brackish or salt water feeds to produce hydrogen and oxygen, for example, through seawater electrolysis."</p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Pfizer's vaccine needs to be kept at -100°F until it's administered. Can caregivers deliver?
- Fair distribution of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines is especially challenging because they need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures.
- Back in 2018, the WHO reported that over half of all vaccines are wasted worldwide due to lack of cold storage, and they were only talking about vaccines that need to be chilled or kept at standard freezer temperatures.
- Real-time logistics data, location tracking, and information about movements are crucial to track shipment progress, product temperature and other conditions.