The wrongs, and rights, of genetic screening for children

Julian Savulescu, a professor of ethics at Oxford, has argued that we should be free to design our children’s personality using genetic engineering: that, more than that, it may even be our ethical obligation to do so. “Rather than fearing genetics, we should embrace it,” he says. “We can do better than chance.”

It is easy to rise up in fury at this: at a skim read it sounds like a Nazi eugenic manifesto. But Savulescu is quick to say otherwise: that was the “coercive imposition of a state vision”, he says, while his vision is of allowing parents voluntary choice. The idea of it is uncomfortable, even viscerally disgusting, but it is the job of professional ethicists to follow their intellect even when their gut is rebelling at the journey.

That said, I think he’s wrong. Not because it’s inherently wrong to carry out genetic screening: as Savulescu says, we do it already, to little public outcry, for things like cystic fibrosis. The idea that we should shy away from this because people who are now alive would not have been had we employed these techniques in the past is similarly foolish. For example, if my parents had decided to screen embryos for myopia or premature greying, I would not have been born. But then, if my parents had conceived a child an hour later than they did, I would not have been born, and no one cares about that; it’s an irrelevance, a silly appeal to emotion. The freakish accident of my birth, the quadrillions-to-one-against odds that I was born instead of someone else, is only visible in hindsight. As Richard Feynman said: “You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won’t believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!” Similarly, it’s only an amazing fact that I exist rather than someone else because it’s me writing this. I, and all of you, are accidents of history.

What is a better reason is that this is, at least at the moment, too powerful a tool to let loose like this. As investigations by this newspaper showed earlier this year, sex selection goes on already, illegally, in abortion clinics. In China and India, it is a real problem, leading to a heavily weighted ratio of boys to girls; in India, 1,000 boys to every 914 girls at the last count. That sort of change in the sex ratio has been shown to be linked to a rise in crime: not only are men more crime-prone than women, but also marriage is well established as a civilising process for men. A study at Columbia University found that a 0.01 increase in the sex ratio “raised violent and property crimes by some 3%”, and suggested that one-seventh of the recent rise in crime in China is due to the “rise in excess males”.

This may or may not be sufficient to outweigh the positive aspects of genetic screening. But since Savulescu is arguing from a point of view of social benefit, by screening out potential future alcoholics, psychopaths and violent criminals, it’s worth being aware of the law of unintended consequences. He may be right in the future, when the power and potential of this new tool is better understood – and we certainly shouldn’t dogmatically rule out all genetic selection on the grounds of “playing God” or “against nature”, or other such nonsense – but for the moment, at least on the basis of the information in his article, the risks are too great.


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