by Stan Dundon

The Parable

                Suppose you has just gotten the news that you had inherited  a castle in Ireland and that your Irish mother-in-law, Fiona, had decided to fix it up for you so that you could enjoy it better the very first day you came. You know that Fiona really doesn’t know much about old Irish Castles, but because she is Irish she thinks she does. You understandably call her and tell her to just keep to dusting and mopping and  especially not to use any fancy new cleaning compounds or abrasives. You even say:  “If the plumbing works, just leave it, don’t try to improve it until we know about the age of the pipes and fittings."   Fiona genuinely loves you, but she also wants to impress the village with her change in fortune, now being the mother-in law of the richest man around.  So Fiona decides to have a reception of village dignitaries in your honor when you arrive, and– noting that the hot water supply was poor and guests would think badly of it—she has a new heater installed. When you arrive and the surprise reception is underway, the pressure from the higher temperature the heater produced causes the pipes and valves all over the castle to leak. The plumber introduced a  modern trick by  re-routing of a couple pipes so that the water in the hot-water pipes would always be circulating back to the heater and thereby staying warm. (That way you don’t have to wait five minutes for warm water to get to the shower or faucet.) But that work caused the water to flow in opposite directions, disturbing and mixing ancient sediments with the water. The kitchen could only get rusty water out of the faucets which looked particularly lurid in the brilliant Irish crystal.  As you enter the castle, precious wood work and plaster in the ceilings is getting soaked with rusty water, wet tapestries are emitting moldy smells and the guests are  frankly horrified. You  complain  bitterly to Fiona that if she had just stuck to common house cleaning everything would have been at least tolerable. If she responds that she was just doing it for you, you might be justified in thinking that she was also using you and your newly inherited castle to show off.

The Lesson

                When  you inherit some ancient and wonderful  habitation make sure you know how it works before you try to make any improvements and make sure you consider the well-being of  those who will live in it now and in the future.  How does this apply to genetic manipulation? Let’s consider first of all the ancient nature of this castle we call our bodies.  Each baby is wonderfully new, but if we only consider its genetic history back to the earliest hominids, the first thing to consider is that our genome, the record of 6 million years of recorded advantageous adaptations, holds mysterious advantages we cannot even imagine. About mere babies in my life-time we discovered that babies get both immunities and a painless opening of their bowels from materials in the pre-milk brownish liquid from the breast, colostrum. My father, who was a physician, told women to throw the colostrum out. We now know that a mother and a child are both genetically constructed so that this “social” interaction of colostrum and baby’s health interact favorably. We also know that husband and wife intimacy before birth prepare the mother and thence the baby for the encounter with many of the rest of the bugs it will encounter in the home. The most dangerous place for the healthy baby is probably the hospital. We know now too that the baby is often soothed by the sound of the mother’s heartbeat, her voice and the father’s too (and even the music it could hear through the uterine wall) after birth since these sounds are already familiar to it. Its digestion and mental alertness are improved by all the jiggling, patting, and silly cooing that even crabby old men seem irresistibly compelled to shower on a baby. Medicine now respects our genetic preparation as babies and parents  to be social animals intimately affected, and usually for the better, by the natural environment of conception, uterine development, nursing and constant fondling we give and they get. Yet, somehow astonishingly, “experts” think that babies conceived when egg and sperm meet in a petri dish instead of the fallopian tubes are not missing anything which they are genetically coded to benefit from. Six million years of evolution did not design anything advantageous into that very special environment which is protective of the richness encoded into those first cells, nothing which “selected” the best sperm to fertilize the egg in the first place, using criteria which we have no idea of whatsoever?  Fish conception occurs outside their bodies in the water. Human conception occurs in the Fallopian tubes. Some scientists think it hardly matters where human conception occurs. Or is it more likely that they simply don't know what benefits accrue and what risks avoided doing it where evolution designed it rather than in a foreign fluid in a dish? This carelessness and completely unjustified minimization of the risks imposed on one’s offspring by opting for a wildly unnatural locus of conception for a  speculative cosmetic benefit is a tip-off about a lurking moral distortion at the base of GM eugenics.

            Like Fiona’s  clumsy effort to improve the ancient castle of which she understood so little,  these “experts” think that they can improve on 6 million years of nature’s work and prove their ignorance of that work  by putting conception in a petri dish. At least Fiona did not take the roof off the castle to improve the lighting!

            The meddling with the early stages of embryonic development in order to improve its genetic endowment could only be matched by Fiona if she had chosen to drive a bull-dozer into the castle’s courtyard without knowing whether there were ancient wine cellars stocked with finest wines and rare liqueur built beneath its pavement. We now know that artificially introduced genes leave genomic wreckage near the insertion point and produce totally unanticipated “side-effects’ if  the insertion occurs in different places. We call it genetic “engineering” as if it were a craftsman's skill of great precision like a dentist making a crown for a broken tooth with perfect fit, matching color and strength. But the genome is a living, organized “social” unit, and sticking a gene here or there is about as crude as trying to scotchtape a fallen green apple back on the tree to ripen. Given the evidence that the nucleus is under frequent viral attack and that parts of our genome bear traces of  successful viral introductions, it is almost compulsory to believe that there is an intra-nuclear genomic “immune system” to police and maintain the incredible stability of our genome, without which the 6 million years of evolution’s progress would leak out as fast as it is built up. In fact, human molecular “eugenicists” should tremble at the completely predictable phenomenon of  “gene-silencing” which worries agricultural biotechnologists who fear investing huge sums of money in a genetic crop improvement only to have its phenotypic expression disappear at some unpredictable time, perhaps in several generations. Imagine the horror of parents who themselves had been successfully  altered for superior intelligence having a child by normal conception who gazes on the world with a blank stare each day.

            Just as you might suspect the purity of Fiona’s motives in meddling with the castle, one has to wonder about motives of parents who seek the “superior” child. What is so bad about the average little-leaguer? Does he or she really need the parental pressure to show off some engineered superior athletic ability when a child that age just wants to have fun chasing a ball or looking at the clouds? Just because one has the physical ability to be a champion does not translate into the desire to even compete, as any parent of gifted children will tell you. And when that desire is supplied from the outside in the form of pushy parents one begins to see the lack of purity in the motives. The kid’s superiority is sought for the glory of the parents, not the kid. 

            But such second guessing of parental motives does not get at the real ethical issue of genetic manipulation of human offspring.  The fertility specialist Panayiotis Zavos is predicting a superior chance of success in human cloning than agricultural scientists have had with animals. About 299 embryos died or were destroyed to produce one sheep “Dolly”. Rates today are at best about 4 failed (died, or destroyed because defective) for every “successful” birth. And keep in mind that “successful” means “as far as we can see or know at this stage.” And these animals are not able to report their “mental” or brain functions, clearly more important in humans. Take a clearly neural problem like dyslexia. We joke about it somewhat cruelly (“Dyslexics of the world, Untie!”) not reflecting on how distressing it can be. We see only normal looking, intelligent and successful people, unable as we are to experience their hidden mental burden. Dr. Zavos assures us that he will have a team and procedures for monitoring the “health” of his experimental embryos and fetuses during all stages of the pregnancy. [1] You have to know what that "monitoring" means: If any significant visible defect shows up  “it” (i.e., a fetus including stages of maturity at which any mother would refer to it as a “baby”) will be destroyed. Zavos is dealing with clones here, but his precautions are completely consistent with the experimental nature of what he is doing and will certainly be followed in any genetic manipulation of an embryo made from a normal egg and sperm. These experiments will be butcher-shops for most of the fetuses.

            Imagine the conundrum of the “monitors” if the sonogram or sampling of the amniotic fluid (which carries more than a 1% risk of killing the baby) reveals an “oddity”. Should they pull the plug on this pregnancy? And if fear of lawsuits or for the reputation of their clinic and for the whole reputation of GM eugenics inclines them toward “termination” of any oddity, how many babies will have to be killed in utero, even ones that had no real problem?  And how many women will be exposed to the risk of breast cancer from the termination of their pregnancy? [2]

But what of the parents who sought a specially “bright baby” and because  gene silencing (the nucleus’s effort to repel an alien gene) produced severe mental retardation and their baby is still staring blankly after 6 weeks when most babies have their parents turning somersaults with delight with their first smiles?  Will there be a somewhat more polite form of a butcher shop for this baby? Instead of the usual compassion with which medical staff strive to repair or cure any deficiency in a newborn, these "monitors" will be wiser than Victor Frankenstein. When the recognition  of some serious defect which was invisible in utero  hits them and "breathless horror and disgust" fills their hearts they will not repeat Victor's error and run away. They cannot, because unlike Victor, the world will quickly recognize the living products of their laboratories. Discreet “disposal” will be imperative.

Why catalog these completely predictable horrors? Because  we need to recognize that when the human person is made  into an “artifact", a human construction,  it is its creators’ goals and not its own intrinsic value which are going to determine its fate. A person has become an artifact, like a painting, a blue-print, a statue, a new model auto. If it “fails” it will be terminated, where “fails” means not meeting  the expectation of others. Nothing could more directly overturn the traditional awe with which parents and their medical helpers have treated the loved child and contradict the most basic form of common-sense ethics:  “Do no harm  to others which you would not wish done to yourself.”

These creators will use impeccable logic in killing the defective ones. The proposal  of Victor's monster to take the mate  promised him and hide in the jungle is worst nightmare of  our molecular eugenicists. To breed and spread the defect with themselves known as its creator! No,  death will be sure and swift. Nothing could more strongly confirm Kant’s insight about what moral chaos results when we treat others as tools to satisfy our needs rather than as ends in themselves. Here, although the experimenters and the cooperating parents may not realize it, they have removed the prospective offspring from the category of  “others” of  humankind entirely and put them in the category of tools, tools not even treated with the care we would show to a rare but damaged piano or violin. How these pursuers of child-perfection distinguish themselves from child abusers is not clear.  If death is the penalty for failing to meet standards of perfection, how can they look down on molesters who allow their victims to resume their lives after they have been  “used”?

This reduction of  human offspring to tools to satisfy the goals  of its creators is the key to  the immorality of GM eugenics. Could Shelley  have forecast  that publicly respected members of the scientific community,  not an isolated genius working in an attic, would propose to imitate the basic program of Victor? At least Victor shuddered at the thought of creating a second monster. These latter day "creators" will not need to fear repeating their experiments, since they can do again and again what Victor was at first reluctant to do: kill a faulty creation. The profligate killing inherent in this reduction of humans to mere tools carries with it an additional paradox: Fiona would probably be restrained in her invasive improvements because she knows that, for her son-in-law, this castle cannot be replaced. But for any, even mildly defective, embryo or near-born no such care needs to be exercised since we can easily get another. Life has become astonishingly cheap. 





              Every analogy limps in some way. Fiona’s repairs were presumptuous and offensive because she did not own the castle, not just because she did not know enough about old Irish castles. The analogy limps because, presumably someone could learn enough about Irish castles to be able to carry out a satisfactory modernization. But ownership or permission of the owner would still be required to make the risks of the learning process morally just.  All intrusive efforts at cosmetic genetic manipulation are founded a completely immoral presumption of ownership of one’s offspring, and this paper simply meant to show how that presumption, implicit and unacknowledged, actually manifests itself in the willingness to expose real offspring, first of all to the risks of in vitro fertilization and finally to the risks of being killed due to mere suspicion of serious defects. Intrusive, non-consenting, cosmetic alteration of the body of a living human being is directly contradictory to any belief that that body belongs to a living human being with intrinsic value of his/her own, completely apart from whether the perpetrators admit that the intrusion is gross experimentation or claim that it is an act of consummate proven skill.

[1] USA Today, reported by Tim Friend, 8/14/02, p. 5D. More recently Chinese scientists inserted adult nuclear material in 980 enucleated cow eggs. 261 developed to blastula stage, 230 were inserted in 112 cow wombs, from which only 26 pregnancies resulted. Only 12 gave birth, resulting in 14 calves, only five of which survived and appear healthy.(AgBiotech Reporter, April 2002, p. 9)

[2]  About 26 of 37 studies of the abortion-breast cancer link show a positive correlation. The political “incorrectness” of acknowledging this risk has been so intense that only court action is likely to force abortion clinics to reveal it to their clients. See