The human cost of designer babies

What do you want humanity to look like, feel like, and act like? What are those things about being human that we don't want to relegate to the dust heap of history?

Joseph Fang Toronto Ontario

The human reproduction industry is in the midst of vast changes. Since the first test-tube baby birthed in 1978, reproduction technology has been rocketing ahead with advancements in fertility, adoption practices, and genetic engineering, and that’s just for starters. While states in the US have been generally unwilling to regulate the reproduction industry, failing to offer protections for surrogates, or for the offspring of donor conception, or coming to a clear legal understanding with regard to women’s reproductive rights, the advancements in reproductive tech have surged.

Writing in Quartz, noted transhumanist and 2016 presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan tackles the conundrum of female fertility. Citing CRISPR, the tool that allows for the alteration of an embryo's genetic material, as " ... likely just the start of an era where humans attempt to create designer babies," Istvan imagines that similar technology can be used to genetically switch off a woman's biological clock. He writes with joy and exuberance about this, and other potentialities for the massive reimagining and transformation of human reproduction as we now know it.

Istvan approaches this revolutionary reproductive technology as though it is a fait accompli, in the works, and near ready for broad societal implementation. But what is not considered, as so many tech watchdogs from Elon Musk to Popular Mechanic's Jacob Ward have pointed out, is the readiness of society to meet these changes. Ahead of us are challenges to the basic definition of humanity, to what it means to be an interconnected individual on this earth.

While regulation could be used as a large and unwieldy tool to enforce research and experimentation practices that will serve the purpose of slowing down this work, that is not the best way to either explore these options in a humane and thoughtful way nor, frankly, stop them. Federal agencies have monitored the pharmaceutical and tech elements, but politicians in the US are loathe to regulate the reproductive industry from an ethical perspective, other than to either advocate for or decry abortion.

Humans are no stranger to technical advancement for which we're not societally ready. That lack of readiness does not—and should not stop—scientists and innovators from pursuing the ideas. However, we need our philosophers and public intellectuals to tackle these issues from an ethical standpoint.

Transhumanism gives us the idea that we can design humanity, intentionally evolve it toward greater life extension, and beyond the boundaries of what have heretofore been considered fixed human limitations. But the question cannot sit with the transhumanists and their agenda alone. So, ask yourself, what do you want humanity to look like, feel like, and act like? What are those things about being human that we don't want to relegate to the dust heap of history?

Istvan posits that we will not only eradicate the biological clock, allowing women to conceive, like Abraham's wife Sarah, well into their old age, but that we will be able to create eggs and sperm using the genetic material of one individual. With DNA swabbed from the inside of a cheek, we may become an organism that reproduces asexually. "This could lead to a society where relationships, sexual or otherwise, are not functionally necessary to continue the human species," Istvan claims. But he does not ask if that's what we want.

Is that what we want? Do we want our biological sex to have no correlation to a reproductive reality? Do we want to isolate ourselves from intimate relationships, which admittedly can be difficult, and opt for asexual reproduction and living single? Do we want to create children that are not born of mother's womb, but artificial ones? Who will be responsible for these manufactured orphans? Will they be granted access to their biological history or will they be frozen snapshots of our reproductive technological prowess?

As human beings, do we believe that human sexuality is a fundamental aspect of our humanity? If we are going to abandon that which makes us human, what are we gaining? Long life sure sounds a delight, but we need to consider what we are giving up.

In many ways, we have to, and have had to throughout human history, destroy ourselves to become something with new capabilities. In the NatGeo series One Strange Rock, astronaut Chris Hadfield speaks about long distance space travel toward colonization of Mars. “Getting to a new home might change us in ways we can’t predict. I’m confident that no matter what is thrown at us during this incredible journey, we’ll find a way to survive. But there is a cost. What we think of as us can only exist here. We will no longer be Earthlings when we get there. We will become aliens.”

I feel that this is in the spirit of Istvan’s conception of transhumanism. That what we will need to become in order to achieve what we have barely yet imagined is a being that is capable of withstanding great loneliness, uprooted from our humanity, able to tell which way is up even in zero gravity. There’s a serious beauty to that. But there’s a beauty in these flawed and yearning forms, with biological sexual differences that run deeper than appearances, and in the connectedness of two individuals in a relationship that at its core is about the furtherance of our species in this universe.


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