In this article, author Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow takes on the issue that she calls “designer babies”: basically, the point that parents choosing IVF can right now make a lot of choices about what genetic characteristics they do (or more often don’t) want their children to have, and the menu of choices is likely to grow significantly in the near future.
Initially, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) targeted severe childhood diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia. Now, more parents use it to screen out genes for late-onset, treatable diseases, such as colon cancer; sex selection is also popular. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, 42 percent of 137 IVF-PGD clinics allowed parents to select for gender. Scientists predict that parents will be able to choose such characteristics as blue eyes or curly hair. Less certain, but plausible, is that scientists will be able to identify genes for more complex traits, such as intelligence and homosexuality. Genetic engineering, which will enable not merely the selection but the insertion of desired genes, is on the horizon. In the United States, this rapidly advancing technology is unchecked by any regulatory mechanism.
Tuhus-Dubrow’s main point is not that this is happening, but that the advocates of gene-selected (or “reprogenetic”) babies are using the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement (“‘ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s about Reproductive Rights, Stupid,’ reads the title of an article on the Web site betterhumans.com, which promotes the use of biotechnologies to improve the human species.”) Perhaps more to the point, she says, even without the rhetoric, the issues are inherently intertwined.
Historically, pro-choice arguments have focused on the right to privacy and freedom from government interference. Legally, those are the terms that define reproductive rights. The landmark Supreme Court cases Connecticut v. Griswold (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973) recognized the right of individuals to control their reproductive destinies. Legal scholars predict that when the question of selecting the traits of offspring inevitably arrives in court, it will be considered in this framework..
This is going to make a lot of pro-choice activists, including me, squirm. The article goes on to report on recent developments in feminism, and criticism of the word (and the concept) of “choice” as a rallying cry. Nonetheless, many of us have been defending “choice” for a long time, in reproductive rights and other arenas. And truly, it’s a fascinating question: what is the difference between choosing whether and when to give birth to and raise a baby, and choosing details of that baby’s biology?
Here are two intelligent potential answers, from late in Tuhus-Dubrow’s article:
The first and least controversial task for pro-choice activists, then, is to make it very clear that the rights for which they have fought are fundamentally different from the right to determine the genetic makeup of offspring. Whether the latter right is legitimate or not, it is not the same as or an extension of the former. Pro-choice activists have struggled for womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s freedom to control their own lives and bodies, not to control the lives and bodies of their children.
As an alternative to Ã¢â‚¬Å“choice,Ã¢â‚¬Â women of color have created the concept of Ã¢â‚¬Å“reproductive justice.Ã¢â‚¬Â Loretta Ross [a reproductive justice activist] defines the term, coined in 1994, as Ã¢â‚¬Å“(1) the right to have a child; (2) the right not to have a child; (3) the right to parent the children we have . . . . We also fight for the necessary enabling conditions to realize these rights.Ã¢â‚¬Â This more comprehensive notion of reproductive justice can be useful in confronting the issue of designer babies.
Another possibility is that the current pro-choice movement will divide over this issue. A lot of us may have immediate reactions against the concept of reprogenetics, and at the same time, I can’t say that I think it’s an entirely bad idea. The prospect of millions of thin, white, blonde, heterosexual, blue-eyed babies makes me sick to my stomach, but I would not be unhappy to see Tay-Sachs Disease, or sickle-cell, or cystic fibrosis eliminated in some painless fashion. And not everyone will agree with me about going that far.
Kay at The Gimp Parade points out that the article does not contend very directly with issues of disability and disability activism, but you know this is an area in which the disability activists will have a lot of thoughts, a lot of feelings, and a lot of energy to fight for what they believe in. Do we really want genetic disability eliminated from our society? And how would we define “disability”?
Also, of course, IVF is extremely expensive, which adds the inevitable class dimension to the conversation: we could, not too long from now, become a nation–or a world–in which rich kids are protected from a range of diseases, conditions, and traits which poor kids get as the luck of the draw. And until we fix the U.S. health care system, “poor” is rapidly expanding to cover most of what has traditionally been the middle class, especially in the context of of expensive health interventions.
None of the really scary aspects of this story are going to happen tomorrow. The things that can be genetically screened out are limited, and more important, the number of IVF births is low, although not as low as I would have guessed (3 million births in 28 years). But Tuhus-Dubrow is right: reproductive rights activists need to be thinking now about where we stand on these issues, and why.
At the same time, while we’re fighting against the growing belief that cosmetic plastic surgery, vaginal reconstruction, liposuction, cosmetic Botox, and dozens of other “feel-good” options are self-empowering and therefore “feminist,” we probably going to meet a lot of resistance when we try to convince proud parents that “perfect is the enemy of good.”