Monday, March 11, 2002

Designer Babies

The most pressing social, political, national security and moral issue of our time is genomics, which gives mankind (for the first time) control over the evolution of all living things. Francis Fukuyama addresses the issue in an important piece in Foreign Policy magazine, arguing that global regulation of genomics and biotechnology is necessary, indeed, urgently required. Following is an excerpt:

It is easiest to object to new biotechnology if it yields a botched clinical trial or a deadly allergic reaction to a genetically modified food. But the real threat of biotechnology is far more subtle and harder to weigh in any utilitarian calculus. Biotechnology offers the potential to change human nature and therefore the way that we think of ourselves as a species.

The debate on biotechnology must move beyond....polarization. Both approaches—a completely laissez-faire attitude toward biotech development and the attempt to ban wide swaths of future technology—are misguided and unrealistic. Certain technologies like reproductive human cloning should be banned outright, for moral and practical reasons. The moral reasons have to do with the asymmetric relationship of a cloned child with his parents: the child will be a twin of one and not related to the other. Practically speaking, cloning is the opening wedge for a series of technologies that ultimately lead to designer babies. If cloning is allowed now, it will be harder to oppose germ-line engineering to enhance babies in the future.

But for most other emerging forms of biotechnology, a more nuanced regulatory approach than outright bans is necessary. While everyone has been staking out positions on various technologies, almost no one has been looking concretely at what kinds of institutions would be needed to let societies control the pace and scope of technology development.