Humans as GMOs

This article at The Nation makes the case that even progressives who take the ultra anti-restrictionist line on abortion should support regulation of new reproductive technologies. These technologies have the potential for very serious unintended social consequences and therefore shouldn’t be left solely to individual choice. This seems like a place where progressives and cultural conservatives could make common cause if they can put aside mutual suspicion over abortion politics.

I think this is a place where a Murray Jardine-style analysis is illuminating: we have a very hard time as a society limiting things that appear on their face to be simply matters of individual preference. But the author of this piece shows that the consequences of those choices have the potential to create social patterns that will have consequences for other individuals who had no part in making that choice. This requires us to deliberate about what kind of a society we want to live in. For instance: do we want to live in a society where access to new technologies results in an extreme genetic stratification between rich and poor?

6 thoughts on “Humans as GMOs

  1. It is often the case that people who have no part in our decisions nevertheless have a serious stake in them. We do not account that alone as a sufficient reason to give them a say.

    Consider Grandma’s choice to spend half her savings on a hospital for cats. Tough luck for her heirs, eh?

    Same applies when the consequences are generated by private choices of many individuals, and the consequences suffered by many others who had no say.

    It happens all the time. Again, it is not in general regarded as sufficient reason to interfere with private freedom of choice.

    Which is not to say no interference is warranted in this case, or permitted.

  2. Fair point. And drawing that line is trickier than a simplistic Millian self-regarding vs. other-regarding distinction would suggest.

  3. bs

    I’m not sure I agree with what follows, but I’m going forward with the post anyway (a byproduct of commenter anonymity, I suppose):

    My initial response to this article is that it suffers slightly from the growing pains that come from new familiarity with genetic (and relatedly, evolutionary) biology. The author is savvy enough to recognize and understand the emerging technology, but, in my humble opinion, he has failed to apply her knowledge in a comprehensive fashion to the events that long preceded its advent.

    One example: The truth is that there is, on the whole, genetic stratification between rich and poor already. It is a natural result of an existing combination: (1) the mating process, within which the financial resources of a mate are, generally speaking, a considerable factor; (2) the fact that many traits are more likely to exist in the offspring of a human possessing that trait than in other humans; and (3) the financial resources of a parent are often passed on to the offspring.

    I don’t mean to be misunderstood: I am not saying that you can assume that any given rich person is genetically superior. In fact, I don’t mean to be evaluative at all. Nor do I mean to deny that there is tremendous genetic variety regardless of class. Rather, I mean that, when taken in great numbers, the genetics of the rich and poor will show some differences. It is up to you whether you prefer one difference to the other. Intuition suggests that these differences would be more likely to exist in close relation to mating rituals–e.g., the possession of features that people find attractive, anatomy that makes for a safer childbirth, greater fertility–than to other aspects of life–e.g., propensity to enjoy a nice game of monopoly, fingernail growth speed.

    With this background in mind, we can address the threshold question of whether the technology has the capacity to change stratification at all. If so, then we ask the follow up question discussed in the article–namely, whether the change will be a broadening of the gap. As for me, I don’t see why the tech would not have the capacity to either broaden or narrow the gap that already exists. The direction in which it operates is largely a function of access to the technology. Here is an admittedly half-baked theory suggesting that narrowing is more likely:

    Presumably, because of the existing stratification, the poor will have a higher demand for such technology than will the rich (this assumes, as does the article, that we all more or less agree on what is valuable). Accordingly, if the poor are allowed a place in the market (via universal healthcare or some similar mechanism) then we’re likely to see the technology work to narrow the gap. Even if the poor are allowed limited access, one additional force working to narrow the gap is the tendency for technology to become more affordable over time.

    Thus, I do not take issue with the idea that regulation might serve the public interest, but I think that her article betrays an unreasoned (but not necessarily incorrect) assumption that our pre-technology state of affairs was more genetically desirable and, therefore, that we ought to be concerned about letting these technologies blossom because odds are that they will bring about a worse state of affairs. Put differently, while we agree that regulation is good, her sort of regulation seems more like limitation than support (e.g., outright ban on cloning), and I’m just not sure that she’s done the legwork to show that the issue of the rich-poor gap would be hurt by the natural course of the tech.

  4. You may be right that the article didn’t provide sufficient support for the claim that new reproductive technologies would exacerbate inequalities between rich and poor.

    As evidence in the other direction I’d point out that most new technologies are usually adopted by the rich first due to the high costs, so they would tend to have a head start in making use of them. Though whether some kind of serious health care reform could level the playing field strikes me as at least a possibility.

    An even deeper concern, I think, is the idea that parents would be messing around with the genetic make-up of their offspring, with potential effects on the entire genetic line. As C.S. Lewis observed, we’re faced with the possibility of one generation of people determing what the subsequent generations will be in far more radical sense than previously. I think that at least calls for taking a deep breath and thinking about it before proceeding.

  5. Pingback: The conservatism of Ray Davies « A Thinking Reed

  6. If we give the state the power to regulate this for the sake even of some good insights, there is probably little to prevent the state from using the control for other reasons. Once we allow that the state has an interest in preventing an extreme genetic stratification between rich and poor, what might it be able to mandate?

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