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Choosing Children: The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Intervention

Choosing Children by Jonathan Glover

John Lanigan considers problems Jonathan Glover has with Choosing Children.

This book is a lucid account of many of the issues surrounding genetic intervention and the possibilities it has opened up for the future of humankind. To what extent should we use genetic engineering and genetic selection to fix the characteristics of our children before they are born? In his first chapter, Jonathan Glover, Professor of Medical Ethics at King’s College, London, discusses the ways in which ‘disability’, which genetic intervention (GI) may aim to overcome, could be defined. Glover has no prejudice concerning what is termed the ‘expressivist’ view, ie the idea that ‘normal’ people neither know nor have any right to judge that what seems to them a disadvantaged life is somehow less rich than their own. Nevertheless, Glover concludes that on balance there are no a priori reasons to reject the use of GI either to overcome disability or to promote enhanced human flourishing for a ‘normal’ foetus or implanted embryo. Furthermore, this promotion of human flourishing needn’t necessarily exclude ‘non-medical’ interventions to produce ‘designer babies’.

The second chapter is devoted to what parents may or may not be thought to owe to their children. It covers areas such as the ‘non-identity problem’, which says that in opting for or against GI, not only the potential good or bad effects on the child should be considered, but also those less personal effects, good or bad, which could arise indirectly from such a choice – for example in the formation of a competitive and socially-divisive ‘genetic supermarket’. The author concludes here though that objections about playing God are not in themselves sufficient to settle the argument in favour of the anti-interventionists.

The last chapter again takes up the designer baby issue, and ends with a vote for leaving an open future to our children – that is, a future which neither imposes draconian restrictions on GI (including for non-medical reasons), nor throws the considerable grounds for caution out of the window.

Jonathan Glover’s book is that of an moral philosopher, and propositions are advanced and discussed, objections made, conclusions drawn on the basis of a disciplined underlying logical matrix. The parameters of the book and of its field virtually oblige the writer into what could be felt at times to be a somewhat academic and secular agenda. While religious perspectives for example, or the horror that exists in certain quarters vis-à-vis any GI whatsoever, are alluded to, they could bear closer examination.

Let us briefly refer then to further areas of speculation which this topic might suggest. For example, an absolute rejection of GI on certain spiritual/religious grounds might rest on an argument that beings have souls, that the souls survive bodily death, may return to the Earth later in a quest for self-improvement, and (for example) that the soul weaves its bodily garment for its own evolutionary purposes. Holders of such views could conceivably have their own objections to GI. Glover specifically rejects what he calls the ‘immigration queue’ idea of people lining up for a chance to be born as a justification for, for example, a decision not to conceive a child if there’s a possibility of the child being disabled. But certain belief-systems do posit an immigration-queue, and their adherents might therefore have personal grounds for objecting to GI. Or again, the cautions Glover sounds, especially concerning designer babies, could be further fleshed out through reference to the Cassandra-like role of early science-fiction. How prescient a story like E.M. Forester’s ‘The Machine Stops’, or certain aspects of the 1984 world seem now! Lastly, though not exhaustively, another area that could be more fully explored is the role played by our materialistic and selfish attitudes. Scientists seem destined to be able to continue to research more or less unfettered and unregulated. Non-human cloning is now a fact. Designer babies, crafted for optimum human flourishing – which could be legitimately interpreted to include physical attractiveness and the cleverness that serves materialistic self-enrichment – could come. Glover alludes to the spectre of a ‘gene-rich’ and a ‘gene-poor’ genetically based caste system. There is already cause for concern over the patenting by powerful interests of certain genetic modifications which resemble crops which have been arrived at by generations of natural cross-fertilisation in developing countries, or where corporations have been able to take out patent infringement lawsuits against farmers, after the accidental cross-pollination of the farmers’ own non-GM crops. What nightmare scenarios are imaginable if patentisation followed as a predictable or even logical result of a genetic supermarket? Regarding many such scenarios, it could be more a question of when than the “if certain conditions exist” which the author posits. It may, in sum, be that the engine driving the expansion of GI is narrow self-interest to a greater and more far-reaching extent than Glover describes in this short account. However, the work remains an admirably sane, balanced and fair discussion of the issues raised by GI, and sounds some of the warnings needed as the possibilities of choosing our children open up.

© John Lanigan 2006

John Lanigan is a writer and translator living in London.

Choosing Children: The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Intervention by Jonathan Glover, (Oxford Univ Press, 2006) ISBN 019929092X hb £9.99/$15.95.


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