“I think you get into a situation of where some people are genetically enhanced and other people are the regular old variety of human being. And I don’t think that’s a world we want to live in,” Marcy Darnovsky (Rob Stein).
In the 1997 movie Gattaca, there are two classes of people. Those whose genes science has perfected and those who came into the world the old fashioned way. Of course, the genetically designed are the ruling upper class. The outdated, genetically flawed folks are fit only for sweeping up after the perfect.
But in sci-fi as in real life, there are no guarantees of perfection. That’s what Jerome Morrow, who has perfect genes, learns when he is paralyzed. Morrow had attempted suicide after failing, in his own perspective, to measure up.
Morrow’s “perfect” life is over. But he can live vicariously through Vincent Freeman, a lesser being who, with Morrow’s assistance, assumes Morrow’s identity. Freeman then lives a life he previously dared not imagine.
(Spoiler Alert!) In the end, Freeman realizes his dream, but Morrow, this time successfully, commits suicide. The imperfect Freeman continues. Morrow, whose perfection failed him, dies. In a society where only perfection mattered, imperfection prevailed.
The question today is whether it is ethical “to try to create babies that have genetic material from three different people.” The conclusion this week from “an influential panel of experts” (of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) is yes (Stein).
Of course, the idea sounds so very compassionate. To create children free from inherited disorders! On the surface, its sounds wonderful. But such progressions never stay on the surface. They go to the heart of humanity. And the heart of humanity is never satisfied with one step of progress. All journeys begin with a single step–and keep moving toward a particular end.
It’s an end we’ve seen before. And it’s a theme as old as science fiction itself: where to draw the line on humanity’s authority to meddle with itself. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World showed us a civilization whose entire population was mass produced, designed to fill a work space in society. H.G. Wells showed us The Island of Dr. Moreau where a brilliant scientist modified and melded humans and lower animals with only negative results.
But it isn’t just fiction. The real Josef Mengele experimented on Jews. His specialty was working on twins and pregnant women of any “lower” race.
And it isn’t just in the past. A defector from North Korea alleges that the regime of Kim Jong-un buys disabled children and uses them for medical experimentation.
And it isn’t just in the realms of evil despots. In our own America in 1932, nearly 400 African-American men participated in a study about syphilis. Except no one told the men they had the disease, and no one provided them with any real treatment. For forty years.
The FDA says that the research the National Academies experts approved is illegal because “‘a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include’ changes that could be passed down to future generations.” That prohibition comes within the pages of the most recent federal budget (Stein).
That means it could change with a slight shift in the breeze.
One of the researchers disappointed in the FDA determination said the ethicists’ approval was “a step in the right direction.” If permitted, such research would allow “the work to continue to hopefully produce children without these disorders” (Stein).
When people give themselves permission to use other people to improve humankind, everyone loses. Human beings deserve respect simply because they are human. Human subjects in this kind of quest become “less than” others and end up no better off than lab rats.
But those who dehumanize other people do not escape unscathed. They destroy their own humanity in the process. One cannot look down on another soul without ruining his own.
The sages who authored the 164 page treatise approving genetic manipulation assure us that Gattaca is not on the horizon. After all, ethicists are very smart people with an innate sense of how to make propositions seem beneficial while never quite nailing down what are, to them, very mobile concepts. The concepts of right and wrong, of who is perfect, of who is so imperfect as to be worthy of exploitation, and of who gets to decide.
The technology to accomplish such feats is new. But the moral questions surrounding mankind’s “progress” are not. Humans keep trying to make a perfect world with perfect people.
When we do, we miss the key principle that the world is better off peopled with imperfection.
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