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Making "better" People: Germline Engineering and Designer Babies

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"Many people love their [golden] retrievers and their sunny dispositions around children and adults. Could people be chosen in the same way? Would it be so terrible to allow parents to at least aim for a certain type, in the same way that great breeders . . . try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family?"

--Prof. Gregory Pence, University of Alabama (1998)

Genetic Engineering has been hailed as one of the greatest scientific developments of the 21st century. The argument above is one of many, posed to ask human beings to think about whether or not genetic engineering is morally and ethically right. By modifying genes and DNA or by introducing new genes into an embryo, organisms are given new, often beneficial, characteristics. This amazing technology is used to alter the genetic material of living cells in order to make them capable of producing new substances or performing new functions. It is the procedure that allows scientists to basically change the very nature of nature. From adding jellyfish genes to mice to make them glow, to cloning sheep and creating super vegetables, the doors that have been opened and the possibilities that can be explored by this branch of science are endless.

There are two main applications for Genetic Engineering. They are “Somatic” Engineering and “Germline” Engineering. Somatic Engineering involves changing the genes inside cells. The procedure involves modifying defective cells by adding new healthy genes to them in order to fix the deficiencies. The main characteristics of Somatic Engineering are that the cells modified are any cells except the egg or sperm ones and that the traits the organism receives from the modification are non-inheritable, meaning they will not be passed on to the organism’s offspring. The other type is known as Germline Engineering. This type of genetic modification deals with the alteration of germ cells. It is called such because the egg and sperm cells are also known as “germinal” or “Germline” cells. This application is far more serious and is deemed to be very controversial. This is because any transformations within an embryo or germ cell would bring about consequences in the future. Any modifications made to the cells would be passed on, not just to the organism’s offspring, but to all future generations. Germline engineering holds the key to the reconfiguration of the human species.

Advocates of Germline Engineering say that it is because of that fact, that Germline Engineering should be made possible. By performing alterations within germ cells and embryos, scientists would be able to make sure that partners would not be passing on any harmful diseases to their children. The problem with this argument though, is that there is already a way to make sure that a child does not inherit any gene-related diseases. This procedure is known as preimplantation-screening and it involves using invitro-fertilization to conceive zygotes which are checked for the disease. Those who pass the scan are then separated and implanted. No cells need to be genetically manipulated for the health of a child to be ensured. The only reason for genetic engineering would be for actual enhancement of the child with genes that it could not possibly get from either of its parents.

In many science fiction novels and films, the subject of having genetically modified creatures is often brought up. The creators of the stories are able to give their characters any traits they want. They have the power to make them more intelligent, stronger, faster or simply superhuman. Now imagine what would happen if the stories cease to lie in the fictitious realm and become our reality. Because of all the advancements in technology, this future is not that far off. Soon parents will be able to preselect the genes that go into their children. Like the author of a science fiction book, they will be able to decide whether they want a red head or a blond, a musician or a painter, a mathematician or a scientist; the possibilities are endless. Journalists often refer to this idea, of being able to preselect a child’s genes, as the “Designer Baby”. It is Germline engineering makes the idea of Designer Babies possible. Whether this practice is morally and ethically acceptable is a topic which is often debated.

In an article entitled “Designer People” by Sally Deneen, a microbiologist from Princeton University expressed his thoughts on what would happen if gene selection becomes a common part of the reproductive process. Lee M. Silver, says he can see a day centuries from now, where there are two separate species of human beings; there are the standard “naturals” and the elite class of special “gene-enriched” beings whose parents consciously

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