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).
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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