by Mark Oshinskie
Through their lack of knowledge or foresight about reproductive technology (“reprotech”) and human genetic modification, Americans and their political officials are setting their country up to fail. This issue was not mentioned during the Democratic Presidential debates. Nor will Trump address it.
An emerging gene-splicing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 (“CRISPR”) allows lab technicians to use enzymes, such as Cas9, to excise and replace unwanted human DNA. Alvin Toffler accurately stated in Future Shock (1970) that technological change affects humans much more strongly than do elections or typical news fodder. CRISPR and related reproductive technologies already, and will continue to, significantly worsen many of the problems that the debaters did discuss: inequality, social division, unaffordable medical insurance, family separation, mass killings, climate change and the widespread alienation that promotes substance abuse.
A Dystopian Future
For at least five decades, scholars and social commentators have observed genetic engineering’s potential to damage human community. These commentators have predicted that democracy will become untenable as genetically engineered individuals create a master socioeconomic class. While Presidential debaters expressed concerns about foreign interference in elections and latter day racism, a society stratified by genetic selection and modification will, by comparison, make today’s America look like a robust, representative democracy and an egalitarian utopia.
By changing the perception of what it means to be human, CRISPR and reprotech also deepen the social division lamented by many contemporary candidates. In his acclaimed book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari observes that, in order to cooperate, cultures must share “imagined realities” that create solidarity among people who will never meet each other. Discussing genetic engineering, Harari writes: “Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority.”
Harari observes that a society with industrial life creation will struggle to sustain functional imagined realities, or to create new ones. In a world of human commodification and genetic reductionism, the basis for social cohesion will incrementally fade away.
Industrializing life via reprotech and gene splicing also alters human self-identity and one’s perception of others. As Harvard Ethicist Michael Sandel suggests in his essay, The Case Against Perfection, it becomes harder to think of people as special and dignified, or for people to think of themselves that way, when they are designed and manufactured. Consequently, these technologies erode an essential moral resource. As life is increasingly commodified, a society already comprising tens of millions who are chemically coping with alienation by using antidepressants, opioids and various self-medications will multiply its chemical dependency.
CRISPR’s Reprotech Roots
Candidates won’t discuss gene-splicing because it is deeply rooted in widespread American support for inextricably related principles and practices. Democrats exhibit fundamentalist zeal for reproductive choice, specifically abortion, egg and sperm sales, surrogacy and IVF. Republicans support corporate money makers and laissez faire commerce; reprotech is already an unrestricted, mega-dollar industry and so will CRISPR be. Both Parties accept large donations from nearly anyone with a checkbook.
Transcending party affiliation, most Americans are deeply individualistic, consumeristic, utilitarian and short-sighted. Many people sense that reprotech is transgressive and corrupt. But they decline to express this perception because they fear being seen as politically incorrect or because they know someone who has used some form of reprotech. People apply more lenient moral and behavioral standards to members of their tribes than they do to the general public.
While IVF has become so commonplace that it is advertised on billboards and the radio, it has dark aspects that many fail to consider, or conveniently ignore. For example, IVF entails the mass production — and mass destruction — of life and reflects and fosters an ownership orientation toward life. Because it is economically efficient to do so, IVF practitioners make multiple embryos, use as many as their clients want, freeze the rest for years and eventually discard them. IVF clinics also routinely implant multiple embryos to increase their success rates, and their profits, and “selectively reduce,” i.e., abort, the extra, unwanted humans that implant in the womb by injecting potassium chloride into the hearts of the unwanted. In addition to banning assault weapons, a culture that did not view human life as disposable would also ban conventional abortion and IVF.
IVF, egg and sperm shopping and surrogacy convert children into something that will provide self-gratification: a consumer product, not a gift from God or nature. Further, when the actions of a mediating technician are substituted for man/woman intimacy, the basis for sexual exclusivity declines and the sacredness of life is further attenuated. In this ethical context, the commodification of life readily extends to third party egg or sperm sales or surrogacy/womb rentals, which amount to what the progressive commentator Andrew Kimbrell has labeled “technological adultery.” Political candidates criticize family separation at the border. But they don’t mention egg and sperm sales, which permanently separate offspring from their mothers or fathers. Those conceived following egg or sperm transactions strive, via websites, to find their techno-biological parents. They also express lasting disappointment regarding their commercial, often Fed Ex-ed, origins.
Support for reproductive freedom, generally, and IVF, specifically, facilitate human genetic engineering, both technologically and ethically. An embryo has many fewer, and less differentiated, cells than does an adult. Thus, it is technologically simpler to cause organism-wide effects by altering embryonic DNA than by trying to edit the DNA in the trillions of mature cells in an adult. Much of the same equipment, methods, cumulating knowledge and the multiple embryos developed during IVF will be used to advance CRISPR and the eugenic arms race that will follow, as prospective parents feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses. Technologically, IVF is to human design as nuclear power plants are to nuclear weapons proliferation.
Ethically, consumer sovereignty already drives life creation via reprotech. Reprotech already enables human design. IVF clinics scan, and selectively implant, embryos that appear most vital and defect free, and allow customers to select their offspring’s sex. Similarly, after paging through catalogs, present day sperm and egg shoppers buy DNA from those with specific, desired traits. Marketing CRISPR’s embryonic genetic enhancements would only be upselling the embryo and gamete selection options that reprotech centers already offer.
Reprotech already has other negative social effects. For example, the ability to medically create life overhangs, and has already worsened, male/female relationships. Men and women in their twenties and thirties now serailly mistreat each other and postpone commitment and conception until they’re well past their natural reproductive prime, or forgo marriage altogether.
Further, many states require insurance companies to pay for IVF’s high cost. Thus, IVF, like other medically unnecessary treatments, or treatments for similarly self-induced conditions, significantly inflates medical insurance premiums and puts basic medical coverage out of the reach of more people.
Despite reprotech’s significant social and environmental effects, and even though Americans are legislatively compelled to subsidize IVF and gene-splicing research, our culture has simultaneously and simplistically decreed that reproduction is a private realm. Where abortion and reprotech are concerned, the long-standing tension between liberty, fraternity and equality has, for the past five decades, dysfunctionally been resolved in favor of individual choice, and corporate profits, and against community.
Given our culture’s exaltation of reproductive freedom, our legislatures and courts are not likely to limit reprotech or CRISPR applications. Moreover, even if anti-CRISPR laws were enacted and upheld by pro-choice courts, these laws would be unenforceable. Genetic enhancements could be effected surreptitiously because they would occur at micro-scale behind closed doors in the thousands of IVF centers across the United States and globe, just as embryo selection and disposal already do. If there is IVF, there will be genetic modification.
Yet, a thoughtful, unbought political leader wouldn’t hide his/her head in the sand about the profoundly negative effects that reprotech practices have, and will have. While politicians fail to solve most problems, they can at least bring attention to those problems. For example, while little has been done to reduce carbon emissions, candidates at least discuss climate change. Human commodification deserves similar focus. But it won’t receive such attention because, while saying “No” is often appropriate and constructive, it’s not a money maker or a vote-getter.
Many have embraced reprotech without thinking about what human manufacture entails and facilitates. When such utilitarian, choice-driven, eugenic practices as IVF, embryo selection and egg and sperm sales have been accepted, on what basis could society oppose genetically designing the unborn? On the surface, each of these processes might produce healthy looking offspring that please customers and their family and friends.
But then, wouldn’t those who built houses on Normandy Beach or in Yosemite Valley enjoy the view?