Gregory Stock, Biophysicist, in conversation with Shonali Ghosal at THiNK 2011
IF YOU could stop ageing or eat a pill that would make you happy, would you take it? What if you could pick the characteristics, looks, gender of your child? Better still, what if genetic engineering could ensure your child would not get the dreaded family disease?
Debates about the potential commodification of children or psychological issues of cloned children are thriving. Though no child has yet been cloned, many of these heated debates are like Rorschach tests of people’s fears of the future.
What is true is that germinal choice technology— a whole slew of technologies by which parents influence the genetic constitutions of their children — is progressing very quickly. That could be done through screening of embryos, or it could be done through making alterations of particular genes. In a decade or so parents will be able to make very sophisticated decisions in creating the children they want to have. While such options would give hope to some, debates around medical and scientific advancement are often surrounded by fear, apprehension and the hubris of playing God. It is very similar to the bizarre decision of denying pain-relieving narcotics to the terminally ill on the grounds that they might get addicted.
No one can contest these ethical discomforts of making explicit choices about our children, which are essentially in the realm of religion, philosophy and politics. Instead we need to focus on long-term safety issues. Finding the problem in the early stages of technology use reduces the risks. Banning technology only reserves it for the wealthy and drives it underground. There were once serious concerns about in-vitro fertilisation too. If there had been unpredictable issues down the line such as cancer or psychological problems, banning IVF would have ensured that we never found the answers.
The human race is perpetually on a treadmill and there’s no getting off. It’s sad that people are so concerned about protecting the future that they want to hold on to the world as it is. The truth is the future will be just fine in protecting itself. It’s like the line from Spiderman: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”