Does the fact that we can do something ever imply that we should do it?

On September 18, I attended a debate in which this question is central. The topic: “Designer Babies: The Morality of Pursuing Perfection.” The first time I heard the phrase “designer babies,” my mind flashed to the terror of toddler pageants: overly made-up girls, forced into adulthood by parents who want to show off their “good stock.” Totally creepy, and not far off the same path: the issue here is the making of our children in our own image. At this debate in particular, we were faced with genetic technology and its proposed use to determine what and how and who our children will be.

The match-up for this event: Wesley Smith, bioethics watchdog and consultant to the CBC, arguing that genetically designing progeny is wrong, and Gregory Stock, PhD, CEO of Signum Biosciences, defending the practice of designing babies.

It was a lively debate, on a tough, complex issue. Here I can only offer a brief (and hopefully fair) representation of both views, and then I’ll offer some of my own thoughts.

Stock’s Position

Stock, a biophysicist, claims that science is ever-revealing the very substance of humanity (e.g., mapping the human genome). He applauds human rational-technical control of the world, and infers that, as a part of the world, we humans will (and should) turn to ourselves, to recreate humanity, just as we do our environment. We’re human, we’re technological; it’s what we do, it’s our destiny.1 Through a course of scientific trial and error, we eventually arrive at good ends. This being the case, he welcomes such fashioning and designing of progeny, as a natural step in our evolutionary history. We already “sculpt our minds and bodies using exercise, drugs, and surgery, [and] tomorrow we will also use the tools that biotechnology provides.2 As a leader in his field, he encounters many well-meaning and responsible parents, and he resoundingly insists, “why not?”

Smith’s Position

Smith finds the notion of genetic engineering of progeny wrong and ridiculously flawed, and offers several lines of argument to support his position: research and procedures will be extremely expensive; it’s full of hubris (pride) and hedonism (self-seeking pleasure, on the parts of parents); it reinterprets procreation as a form of solipsism (everything exists for me); the practice is literally eugenic in denying equality to all, placing higher value on the “fit”; it fails to take into account the freedom, individuality and personal rights of the designed child; and it’s a utopian ideal, which, as history shows, is ultimately oppressive.

Taking Stock of Designing Babies

My own position lines up similarly to Smith’s; so I’d like to use the remainder of this article to consider Stock’s position. First, he openly makes positive moral claims regarding the procedures and effects of genetic engineering in human lives. His challenge, then, would be squaring these moral claims with his deterministic evolutionary perspective on human technology — if we have no choice in the matter, if it is truly our destiny, then it “just is.” It is neither right nor wrong; as such, he’s faced with either abandoning his claim that these things are good, or abandoning his evolutionary, deterministic worldview — not an appealing dilemma for him.

Second, it’s difficult to see how Stock can get out of the claim that his views are entirely eugenic. Selecting, modifying or fixing embryos with germinal choice technology by genetic screening and germline engineering is clearly an instantiation of eugenics. This genetic programming perfectly falls in line with the definition of the term by Sir Francis Galton, who is credited with its coinage. Eugenics: “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” 3

Abolishing Our Babies, Abolishing Our Selves

These are some seriously high hurdles an advocate of designing babies has to jump. But off in the distance (or is it already before us?), I see a crushing defeater for Stock. We find this line of argument eloquently woven through the addresses of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. I’m continually haunted by Lewis’ prescient, prophetic commentary on modern human science and its eugenic nature. This is the defeater for any who think that any sort of “good” ends will be achieved for humans by designing humanity:

“The man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please… They are… men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean… It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao [Lewis’ term for the natural moral law], they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.” 4

It will be the task for Stock and his fellow conditioners to show how humanity can undergo such radical recreation, and yet remain human.

So, Who Won?

I know this question is just nagging you to pieces. I’m obviously biased to favor Mr. Smith’s position; he did an excellent job of defending his position. But regardless of who won, a deeper question nags us: As capable as we are with science and technology, do we have the moral character and virtue to take this on rightly, promoting the good of our progeny? An affirmative answer to that question worries me a great deal, and threatens to abolish us completely.

1Stock, Gregory, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, (Houghton-Mifflin, 2002), p. 197
2Ibid, p. 194.
3Black, Edwin, War Against the Weak, Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (Avalon, 2003), p. 18.
4Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man (original publication: 1944; HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 60-64.


Evan Rosa is a CBC Staff Writer and student in Talbot School of Theology’s MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Follow his blog, Cultural Velocity.