DRAWING THE LINE

You might say an important line is crossed when parents go from protecting to selecting (and beyond). Selecting draws more scrutiny, but it’s not easy to say why. When we control which of many possible children come into the world before conception, we do no harm to the children "left behind" As we saw in chapter 2, there aren’t any unborn ghosts in cosmic orphanages, waiting to get lucky and to be born. The potential child not conceived because you used contraception while taking Accutane is just that—potential, and not the least bit real. Nobody’s literally excluded because of preconception selection.

If selection goes on in the context of IVF, the embryos left behind are only a few days old. In chapter 5 I will be arguing that these very early embryos are on a par with sperm or eggs. They are mere precursors of us, not "one of us.” It will take another week or so of development for one of us to be on the scene, and even then, that being will not be a person yet, just as he or she will not be a child, teenager, or adult yet. If there is a problem with being selective, the problem doesn’t seem to be one about destroying or never implanting unused embryos.

Still, aggressive selectiveness does seem troubling, at least to me. There is something worrisome about guarding the gates of existence too carefully. After all, most people who make it through, despite having suboptimal characteristics, are much loved and destined for perfectly decent lives. We might want to say that sometimes we should select and sometimes we should not—if we can draw the line in some principled and coherent way.

Perhaps we should say that selection is bad when it is bound up with discrimination. In the world of the superb movie Gattaca, genetic screening is used to select the “best” babies; after birth, screening continues throughout life. Those with the right genes (the “valids”) get the best opportunities, while those with the wrong genes (the “invalids”) are stigmatized and excluded. Selection is condemned by the movie’s implicit “argument” partly on the basis of its awful social consequences. In the dystopian world of the movie, the exclusion of people with disabilities does a great deal of harm to people who don’t measure up. (The movie also rejects the power of genes, by having characters’ lives turn out differently than their genetic profiles would have predicted.)

In the real world, selection is indeed sometimes linked to discrimination. Take sex selection—one of the most commonly used forms of selective technology, and one that resists classification as either a therapy or an enhancement. Sex selection can involve using PGD to decide between available embryos in a lab, and discarding the “wrong-sexed” embryos. Sex selection can also mean detecting sex via ultrasound, and then deciding whether to continue the pregnancy or abort, depending on the outcome. Where sex selection is used frequently, like in China and India, more people prefer to have boys. The naturally occurring ratio of male newborns to female is 105 to 100, but in China it’s currently 116 to 100 and in India 111 to 100. The result, eventually, is a larger number of unmarried men, and studies show unmarried men are less happy (on average), more prone to disease (physical and psychological), and more likely to commit crimes, compared to married men. They may also band together and perpetrate crimes—often against women. Beyond that, the fact that millions of girls are missing from China and India sends a terrible, sexist message, further lowering the status of women.

So, is it safe to say that selection should be avoided when and only when it might very well have negative social consequences? Some philosophers have argued that selection is more deeply pernicious than that. The harm in it is not just a matter of how the child will fare in society, eventually. There is something more immediately problematic about selectiveness for the parent who is selective and the child who is selected. They also claim that protecting and modifying can be problematic. But why? What’s the problem?

 
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