Thursday, February 14th, 2013
Let’s face it, everybody who wants a baby wants a Super Baby. Although so many parents-to-be say they’re simply hoping for healthy children, I know deep down that many would prefer to go a step further and have a disease resistant babies. Calm babies. Happy babies. Genius babies. Gorgeous babies. Gifted and talented babies. Essentially, people want tiny little superheroes to call their own.
And, as I learned at last night’s Intelligence Squared debate on genetically engineered babies, the super baby of the future may not be that far away. Private companies around the world, including here in the U.S., have already been altering the genetic makeup of human eggs, sperm, and zygotes. Most of this work has been done in the interest of allowing women who could by no other means give birth to healthy biological children to do so—but clearly, genetically engineering babies could lead to many other “tweaks” that go beyond health and into looks, abilities, personalities, and more. The super baby of the future could truly mirror a super baby we’re already very familiar with—Superman, whose father, according to his back-story, was in fact, a scientist.
I can already imagine saying, “Oh, what? Your baby is already rolling over? Yeah, well, my little one is flying. And curing cancer. And generally saving the world. Oh, and her poo doesn’t smell. At all. No big.”
While it’s true that the promise of super babies is pretty exciting, the genetic modification of human reproductive cells does raise a ton of questions. If a woman can’t have a healthy child with her own DNA without having that DNA altered, at what point does it cease to be her DNA, and start being something . . . else? What risks are involved—is it safe? Would genetically altered babies lead to a world where the super baby reigns over the normal baby? How expensive would these genetic modifications be, and who would get left behind the pay wall?
I’ve seen the sci-fi genetics thriller Gattica more than a few times (and not just because I’m nerdy, I mean, come on—late ‘90s Ethan Hawke, people), so I’ll admit I went into last night’s debate thinking I knew a lot about the Brave New World of the super baby—but I had no idea just how fragile the human genome actually is, and how little we know about genetically engineered children.
According to panelist Sheldon Krimsky, Tufts University professor and Chair of the Center for Responsible Genetics, those who support the creation of super babies “think of the human genome as a Lego set, where pieces of DNA can be plugged in or out without interfering with the other parts of the system. Actually, the human genome is more like an ecosystem where all the parts interrelate and are in mutual balance.”
In other words? If we start altering a gene here or there, even with the best of intentions, we could majorly mess up a lot of other important things in a baby’s DNA—giving babies unpredictable, potentially deadly, and possibly never-seen-before disadvantages—much like Superman’s debilitating weakness toward Kryptonite. Youch. But then, when you think about it, good old-fashioned reproduction can yield babies with unpredictable and potentially debilitating disadvantages, too. Scientific intervention or not, you never know what you’re going to get when it comes to babies.
All that said, Krimsky isn’t against the super baby, either. He went on to say that instead of looking to the risky world of genetic engineering, we should turn to more safe and dependable ways to impact a baby’s outcomes, touting things like nutrition, vitamins, yoga, and other social and environmental factors during pregnancy. And the thing is, there really is solid data showing that many of those factors can improve baby’s intelligence, immunity, and even temperament. In short, although all the prenatal yoga in the world can’t give an infertile couple the ability to give birth the way genetic modifications can, it’s still possible for the average fertile couple to have a super baby without using a scientific scalpel—just a different kind of super baby. Think more Batman (self-made) than Superman (science made).
Personally, I’ve always been way more into Batman—I love the idea that even normal humans can become superheroes—but the debate over who’s better: Superman or Batman rages on, much as I expect the debate over genetically engineered babies to continue for a very long time. Both superheroes (and both kinds of babies) have their advantages—but no matter how you shake it, they’re both super, and both aim to make the world a better place.
I hope both sides of the genetically engineered babies debate keep our superhero friends in mind as they forge ahead, funding research, creating new technologies, and writing policies. Whatever is decided and whichever direction we go in, the first goal must be to keep our children safe and our communities healthy. Superheroes, like Batman and Superman, can afford to make life-or-death decisions like these on a dime, but since we’re simply mere mortals (for now), I hope everyone involved gives this debate the deep thought and analysis it deserves. Our future actually depends on it.
What do you think? Do you want a super baby? Are you more into Batman babies or Superman babies? Which side are you on in the debate over genetically engineered children? Comment below–this one is ready for a big discussion!