Q: What is inheritable genetic modification?
A: Inheritable genetic modification (IGM) means changing the genes in egg or sperm cells, or in the cells of very early embryos, in order to modify the traits possessed by the next generation of people, who may pass them on in turn to their children. It is also known as "germline engineering."
Q: Shouldn't we allow IGM in order to prevent children from inheriting a serious gene-related disease?
A: Those who wish to avoid having a child with a gene-related disease such as Tay-Sachs have many options besides those that require inheritable genetic manipulation. These include not only adoption and sperm or egg donation, but also prenatal and pre-implantation screening. These high-tech genetic screening and selection procedures raise serious ethical concerns of their own, especially because their use appears to be expanding. But they are simpler and safer than manipulating the genes of embryos, and are far less likely to encourage a future of market-based eugenics.
Q: What about using inheritable genetic modification to produce improved or enhanced children?
A: With the medical rationale for IGM so unpersuasive, some advocates of IGM now openly promote its use for producing "enhanced" or "designer" babies, and even acknowledge that it would exacerbate existing inequalities and create new kinds of inequality. Proposals for genetic enhancement and the world view that accompanies are widely seen as a threat to social justice. They are overwhelmingly rejected in opinion polls.
Q: Isn't human IGM inevitable?
A: Not at all. In a democratic society, people have the power to agree on the rules under which they wish to live. Many nations already prohibit human germline engineering as well as reproductive cloning. There is no reason that the United States and the rest of the world cannot do the same.
Q: Could prohibiting the genetic modification of human embryos open the door to legal restrictions on abortion?
A: No. There is an enormous difference between ending an unwanted pregnancy and manipulating the genetic makeup of a child. In fact, advocates of abortion rights and women's health have a number of special reasons for concern about species-altering technologies.
Q: Don't people have the right to genetically engineer their children if they wish to?
A: Rights don't exist in a vacuum. They are socially negotiated. People don't have the right to sell their children, or to abuse them. Manipulating the genes of an embryo would carry enormous risks for the individual child, for the mother, and for social justice. It would represent an unprecedented act of effective control over a child's life trajectory. Changing a future child's genetic makeup falls outside any existing notion of parental rights.
Q: If we prohibit IGM, won't that just encourage a black market in "designer babies"?
A: Perhaps, but that's hardly a reason to allow it to become acceptable and widespread. People break laws against other objectionable behaviors-murder, assault, incest-but the world would be a very different place without such laws. Black market abuses can be minimized, or even eliminated, by the spread of a social ethic that affirms the unacceptability of trying to breed "better" humans, and by strong legal penalties.
Q: Is opposition to IGM at odds with medical and scientific advances?
A: Just the opposite. A societal agreement to reject IGM and reproductive cloning, and to set up effective and accountable regulation of some other applications of human biotechnology, will build greater support for developing the techniques and applications judged to be beneficial and appropriate.
Q: Isn't IGM already prohibited?
A: IGM is prohibited in dozens of countries, but not, for example, in the United States. That is why laws at the international level and in all individual countries are needed.
Last modified June 1, 2006