Saturday, May 26, 2007

Guest post by Blue Lily -- The Case against Perfection

A new book by Michael J. Sandel, called The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, explores the moral issues created by the increasing knowledge about genetics and the scientific abilities to manipulate our future because of it. I haven't read the book yet, though I do plan to. But an excerpt from the opening pages (available here in .pdf format) offers some intriguing questions which are related to an upcoming post I'm working on.

Sandel begins by looking at a deaf lesbian couple who chose to have a deaf child and juxtaposes that rather radical decision with those couples who seek genetic perfection in their child:
Is it wrong to make a child deaf by design? If so, what makes it wrong -- the deafness or the design? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that deafness is not a disability but a distinctive identity. Is there still something wrong with the idea of parents picking and choosing the kind of child they will have? Or do parents do that all the time, in their choice of mate and, these days, in their use of new reproductive technologies?

Not long before the controversy over the deaf child, an ad appeared in the Harvard Crimson and other Ivy League newspapers. An infertile couple was seeking an egg donor, but not just any egg donor. She had to be five feet, ten inches tall, athletic, without major family medical problems, and to have a combined SAT score of 1400 or above. In exchange for an egg from a donor meeting this description, the ad offered payment of $50,000.

Perhaps the parents who offered the hefty sum for a premium egg simply wanted a child who resembled them. Or perhaps they were hoping to trade up, trying for a child who would be taller or smarter than they. Whatever the case, their extraordinary offer did not prompt the public outcry that met the parents who wanted a deaf child. No one objected that height, intelligence, and ahletic prowess are disabilities that children should be spared. And yet something about the ad leaves a lingering moral qualm. Even if no harm is involved, isn't there something troubling about parents ordering up a child with certain genetic traits?

Some defend the attempt to conceive a deaf child, or one who will have high SAT scores, as similar to natural procreation in one crucial respect: whatever these parents did to increase the odds, they were not guaranteed the outcome they sought. Both attempts were still subject to the vagaries of the genetic lottery. This defense raises an intriguing question. Why does some element of unpredictability seem to make a moral difference? Suppose biotechnology could remove the uncertainty and allow us to design the genetic traits of our children?
The technology of genetic engineering is one cultural location where the politics of reproductive freedom and disability rights come together. These are not the only issues, or the only place these two interests intersect, but it is probably the most culturally compelling in our time.

Cross-posted at The Gimp Parade