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Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line?

Michael Williams gazes inwards and agonizes about the prospects of a proper public debate on such matters as genetic engineering.

I vividly remember attending my first University Union debate. I expected that reasons would be put forward for and against the motion, that seconders would evaluate, challenge and refine the arguments and that, in conclusion, the best argument would win. But I was appalled! It was more like a slanging match using sophisticated language and humour to score points. It was not a case of may the best argument win, but may the best entertainer win. The reason that I was so offended was that I believed controversy to be a form of cooperation, which was ultimately a way of arriving at truth, to paraphrase Auden.

Designer Babies belongs to a series of short books, sponsored by the Institute of Ideas, called Debating Matters which seek to expand the boundaries of public debate. The method is to ask contemporary experts to contribute short essays setting out a variety of viewpoints on burning issues of the day. In this particular book Veronica English of the BMA, Agnes Fletcher of the Disability Rights Commission, John Harris of the UK Human Genetics Commission, Josephine Quintavalle of the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy and others, set out their views. The strength of the book is that in very short space one finds an up to the minute discussion of all the main arguments. The language is also accessible to non-specialists. It will be extremely useful to the A level student and to anyone wanting a good foundation in the subject. But the shortcoming of this approach is that the essays stand alongside one another with little debate between them. Is this a device to make the reader come to his or her own conclusions after weighing up both sides, or does it raise the question as to the nature of public debate as such?

This question is highlighted for me in three of the essays. John Harris puts the progressive case for designer babies relying on consequentialist and human rights arguments. Agnes Fletcher calls for caution because the issue could undermine the rights of those with disabilities. Josephine Quintavalle puts the conservative argument, though this is stated in its weak form based on consequentialist arguments drawing attention to the risks involved in the processes. If she had argued for the stronger conservative case, which forbids all experimentation and manipulation of human embryos, then the three cornered fight would have been complete. It would then have been clear that public debate on this issue is a matter of the different fundamental stances taken by the participants. Having such different starting points public debate can only be a form of the one who shouts the loudest, or the one who holds the most power, winning the day. In these circumstances how can public debate ever fulfil my adolescent dream of a form of cooperation which arrives at the truth? This is a vital question for fundamental ethics. If public ethics is ever going to be more than simply stating your case based on your own presuppositions, then some more sophisticated ethical method must be practised.

Jürgen Habermas in his Discourse Ethics believes that he has found such a method. It is not one that aims at establishing truths for all time, it is more modest in that it claims to be dialogical in the here and now sense of finding a way forward in concrete historical debates. It takes the contradictory positions of the progressive and the conservative and offers a method of getting to the next step. The problem is that Habermas’ method does not convince me, and so all I am left with is a sophisticated version of emotivism.

I will certainly be using Designer Babies in my teaching, and I will be recommending it to others. I will also be sending off for the other books in the series, though the Institute of Ideas website (www.instituteofideas.com) was a disappointment. But I am still left struggling with the philosophical question of the nature of public debate. Is it a matter of disputation as in the courts or in parliament? Is it dialogical as in Plato’s Dialogues? Is it dialectical in either its Hegelian, Kierkegaardian or Marxist forms? These are pressing questions for our modern democracies when the rationalist linguistic approaches of a Habermas or a Hare cease to satisfy.


Michael Williams is the Vicar of Bolton Parish Church.

• Designer Babies, The Debating Matters Series, (Institute of Ideas/Hodder & Stoughton), 2001, £5.99 pb ISBN 0340848359.

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