Would you like to have a child who is intelligent, athletic, good looking and genetically modified?

Published: August 10, 2016

Britain’s government has allegedly misled the public with respect to a new IVF technique experts claim will herald an era of genetically modified babies. PHOTO: REUTERS

Would you like to have a child who is intelligent, athletic, good looking, and musically gifted? Designer babies are now possible as genetic enhancement projects are getting underway in China. Most Western countries are studying the development; with the exception of the United States, genetic modification of germline human cells is on hold.

I remember when I was young, the first in-vitro fertilisation child born in Pakistan created a moral debate. For months, all across the country, people kept asking questions about the legitimacy of the IVF child. There was a strong resistance from conservatives which has disappeared; it is now accepted as normal. At about the same time Dolly, the sheep, was cloned from a somatic cell in the laboratory. This was considered a miracle. Now, almost two decades later, science has advanced; the possibility of genetically modified (GM) babies is opening up a new debate about eugenics among scientists and in society.

We live in an era where we eat GM food daily. It has been proven to be as good as traditional organic food or sometimes even better. Now human cell biologists have developed sophisticated techniques to edit genes in the embryo to enhance human development. These modifications are used to resist certain highly lethal diseases such as cystic fibrosis and enzyme deficiencies. Many other projects are underway to make humans resistant to cardio-vascular illnesses as well as infections such as AIDS and malaria. The Chinese program of genetically enhancing human babies takes this science of altering the gremline human genome to an entirely new level. Not only will the first baby be modified; the altered genes will be transmitted to his or her future descendants as well.

It is a matter of intense scientific debate about how to carry out genetic editing because predictably the results can have a tremendous and permanent impact on the whole human race. If used properly, this technology will make it possible for parents to have children who have longer life expectancy rates and are resistant to certain diseases. But this designer baby technology can cause a huge social problem in the world as well. Experiments can go wrong; these babies can be born with different illnesses and their modified behaviour can have adverse effects on family relationships. Also, with the ability for gender selection and modifications for height and weight, to mention only a few outcomes, anthropological imbalances can occur in the world.

In conservative societies, like ours, it can renew the debate about a child’s legitimacy. In a society that judges science on the parameters of halal or haram, this phenomenon can bring immense social problems for these children and their parents. Not too long ago, there were religious decrees that corneal transplant were not allowed and that it is forbidden to live on Mars. Orthodox clerics have even made statements denouncing immunisation. For all of these reasons, genetically enhanced children could face tremendous pressures in a conservative society like ours. Maybe they will need gene editing for resistance to depression and anxiety as well as for living under social pressure.

Already, as we know, parents contribute greatly to the genetic makeup of their children. Parental behaviour and the environment children live in also affects the development of their personalities and many of their abilities. In my clinical practice, I learn daily about parents’ influence on the behaviour and personalities of their children. We all know that parents regularly make decisions and choices that alter the future of their children. By editing their genes, parents will continue to be influential but at the same time, be given a little more control over the well-being of their off-spring.

Science is progressing at a tremendous pace and it seems certain that soon these genetically enhanced children will be in the world. We should take this time to make polices based on our values and moral codes about how to handle it. Instead of rejecting the science out of hand, we can look on the bright side – that a better human race may emerge. Until we have an option to have a GM baby, the century-old time-tested way to get the best babies is to choose your partner carefully.

Would you be willing to have a genetically modified child?

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Hassan Majeed (MD)

Hassan Majeed MD

The author is working as a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, NY. He is a marathon runner and his interests include art, culture, travel, gender, human rights, mental health, and education. He tweets @HassanMajeedMD (twitter.com/HassanMajeedMD)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.