Road to Designer Babies

Of Patents and Pandora’s Box

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Too often the ability to do something implies the justification to do it. But should we do everything that we can do? Stay tuned: BreakPoint is next.

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John Stonestreet

Remember the story of Pandora’s Box? Pandora, according to Greek poet Hesiod, was the first woman on earth. She was given beauty by Aphrodite, speech by Hermes, and a box by Zeus, along with the warning to never  open it. Well, as we all know, curiosity got the best of Pandora, who opened the box and all the evils and diseases of life flew out, afflicting mankind until this day. Only Hope remained.

This story, of course, is an echo of what actually happened with Adam and Eve as described in the Genesis account. The Serpent tempted Eve to disobey the Lord, take the forbidden fruit, and with Adam, plunge the human race into a terrible fall from grace. Their desire for forbidden knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil—shows that not all knowledge is a good thing.

But the idea that all knowledge is a good and useful thing is very often assumed in science, Daily_Commentary_10_22_13particularly in the exploding field of genetic engineering. While God has given us the ability to understand His good world with such tools as science and mathematics, it does not follow that just because we can do something we should do it.

Earlier this month on BreakPoint, Eric Metaxas told us about a molecular biologist at Kyoto University who used the skin cells of a mouse to create “primordial germ cells.” He matured these cells into eggs, fertilized them, and implanted them into a female mouse, which then gave birth to live young. In other words, he made it possible to create life by bypassing normal reproductive channels—and many infertile as well as homosexual couples began asking about whether the technique could enable them to have children, too.

Eric rightly told us that what ultimately sets us apart from the rodents in Hayashi’s laboratory is not our technology or power to cheat nature. It’s our ability to say ‘no’ to things we want to do, but shouldn’t do.”

Now we’ll see if 23andMe, a California genomics company, can just say “no.” They just announced a patent for a technology that would allow parents to choose or suppress genetic traits in their children; traits such as “height, eye color, muscle development, personality characteristics, and risks of developing age-related macular degeneration or certain types of cancer.” The patent application even lists the following choices: “I prefer a child with”: “longest expected life span” or “least expected life cost of health care.” It's not foolproof, but would be a major step toward so-called "designer babies."

Now the question is whether 23andMe will keep the lid of this Pandora’s Box firmly closed.

A company spokeswoman said, “When we originally introduced the tool and filed the patent, there was some thinking the feature could have applications for fertility clinics. But we’ve never pursued the idea, and have no plans to do so.”

Of courNewsletter_Gen_180x180_Bse, when it comes to biotechnology, plans often change. What becomes thinkable then becomes possible, then becomes profitable, and then becomes available. As a culture we've already embraced the selective elimination of unborn children with undesirable traits. It's only a small step enabled by our scientific arrogance and narcissism to embrace the selective production of children with desirable traits.

But anything that turns children into products results in putting a price tag on the priceless, which always and only cheapens human value.

Further Reading and Information

BP-Takeaction_102213Road to Designer Babies: Of Patents and Pandora’s Box - Next Steps

As John said, let’s hope and pray that 23andMe keeps their word not to use the technology they've created. Even if they do, no doubt other companies and researchers will continue the quest to re-make the human race in their own image. We need to be prepared to make the case against opening this genetic Pandora’s Box.

Please forward this commentary to your friends.



Genomics firm 23andMe patents ‘designer baby' system, promises not to use it
Fox News | October 3, 2013

"I prefer a child with …”: designer babies, another controversial patent in the arena of direct-to-consumer genomics
Drs. Sigrid Sterckx, Julian Cockbain, Heidi C. Howard, Pascal Borry | Genetics in Medicine | October 3, 2013

Of Mice and Men: And the Abolition of Both
Eric Metaxas | | October 7, 2013


23andMe website

The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity website


Regarding your response, John
First, thank you for taking the time.

Your first point is basically a restating of the general, broad statement about science that, again, could be used to oppose most anything. And in my case it would be a straw man argument, because I would never say that everything should proceed just because it can be done. I believe these matters have to be decided on merits, and I have been asking for you and Eric to discuss this Kyoto mice breakthrough on the merits rather than just a broad statement that some science shouldn't go forward.

As for point two, simply pointing out that there are profits to be made is not a good argument against anything. If you believe work on the Kyoto discovery is unethical, please explain why.

Your third point, regarding designer children, seems to be addressing something that I did not talk about. I was not writing about people choosing the traits of their children. I was specifically talking about the Kyoto breakthrough.

I see the Kyoto discovery as potentially ending a lot of people's heartache and enabling many folks to be fruitful and multiply as they believe God calls them to do. If you and Eric see a downside that decidedly outweighs the potential benefits, with all due respect, you have not made that clear to me, at least. I certainly don't want to write in support or defense of something terrible, so I'm open to being persuaded that there are bad aspects of this mice breakthrough, and that they are so bad that they should stop a potential godsend for many hurting people.

I'm not trying to be bothersome about this, just looking for more than "Sometimes science has bad results," which I would never dispute. Thank you.

There were a number of reasons given in the commentary why this shouldn't proceed.

First, we underscored the predominant scientific mindset that all technology should proceed unquestioned because something is possible. This mindset proceeds from a worldview of humanism, that we really have the right to pursue whatever comes into our minds. This does not square with either the doctrine of original sin, or with the history of science and technology.

Second, when it comes to biotechnology, profits win the day over any ethical concerns. The examples of this are overwhelming, and the company knows it - otherwise, why patent this technology at all? Only because it makes it profitable.

Third, any technology that turns children into commodities is a bad idea. And designer children cannot help but do this. We've discussed this before on Breakpoint, but to summarize, this is not a slippery slope argument since children are already being commoditized. This is just a while new level of being able to do that.

Even so, slippery slope arguments are indeed logical fallacies, but so often historically verifiable. These darn ethical slopes born of scientific hubris informed by a humanistic desire to control and produce rather than a humble pursuit of knowledge are indeed slippery. Incredibly so.

None of this makes Eric or I luddites, of course. Concern over how one does science is not the same as concern over if one does science.

John Stonestreet
This is really becoming disappointing. Eric and John have both addressed this breakthrough from Kyoto only in the most broad terms about how we shouldn't necessarily pursue all new technologies. As I've said before, one could use that kind of argument against almost any advance in almost any field. Shouldn't you have to produce more specific arguments about this specific technology?

And logically speaking, references to Pandora's Box don't even come close to cutting it. It's basically just a take on the slippery slope fallacy.