Babies without Sex

April 23rd, 2012

By Jennifer Lahl, CBC President

This article was first published March 7, 2012 at cbc-network.org.

Last December I was invited to tape a show for Dr. Oz, which aired in January of 2012. It is hard to explain what it’s like to tape a show in front of a live audience. There are all the pragmatic realities—such as the very early wake-up call for hair and make-up, show prep, hours of waiting and the sobering fact that you cannot fully control your message.

You hope and pray you get a fair hearing and an opportunity to express your views. Just as important, you want your best points to survive the editing process, which will make or break the impact of your performance. When the show finally aired I was quite pleased! Dr. Oz was definitely fair as a host, and as a medical doctor, he and I actually agreed on the biological reality that delaying childbirth too long can have real, serious and potentially life-threatening risks. (See sidebar from link below for more.)

So much is being discussed these days in the arena of bioethics that I thought I would add yet another cultural trend I find particularly disturbing, babies without sex.

If you’ve never watched the movie Gattaca, it really should be on your list of top films to view this year. Gattaca came out fifteen years ago featuring a society that embraced genetically enhanced children through new biotechnology. At the time, such a notion was purely science fiction. Today you might be shocked to see how much of the biotechnological advancements in the film are now a reality. (Trivia fact: the letters in Gattaca, G – A – T – C, come from the bases in the DNA double-helix: guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine.)

The main character in the film is Vincent, played by Ethan Hawke. He is one of the last “natural” babies born into a sterile, genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and disease likelihood are ascertained at birth. A natural baby was one conceived the old-fashioned way, via male to female sexual intercourse.

Vincent’s antithesis is Jerome, played by Jude Law. Jerome is the genetically superior or gene-rich person created in the lab with all the benefits of modern biotechnology. Sadly, because of an accident, he is paralyzed and lives out his life in a wheelchair. The film pits Vincent against a societal caste system that denies him certain rights, privileges, and opportunities because he’s of a lesser status than Jerome, who up until his accident had led a privileged life.

As a fan of Gattaca, I read with much interest Bruce Goldman’s blog piece, The end of sex?. Goldman, a science writer at Stanford, sat in on Stanford law professor Hank Greely’s talk titled “The End of Sex.” Goldman’s post reported on Greely’s bold assertion that within the next fifty years the majority of babies in developed countries will be made in the lab. Greely assumes, like the writer of Gattaca, that no one will want to leave nature to chance and have natural babies.

Some, perhaps even Greely, would go even further and say it is our duty to use these technologies to insure that society isn’t burdened with natural babies who may come with all those annoying things like disease, the wrong height, hair or eye color, sex, or be of only average intelligence.

Goldman reports that Greely says that as these technologies advance, the costs will go down. Soon, “tossing a measly $5K into the kitty for prenatal genetic diagnosis to predict other, not strictly medical traits from height to sociability to IQ will prove irresistible for people already ready to fork over an extra twenty grand a year for the right preschool.” (Emphasis mine)

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