The other day I was making plans for my upcoming wedding anniversary and was thinking of how quickly twenty-five years have gone by. I was pondering just how much had changed in that time. Just for my own curiosity, I googled “what was technology like” in the year we married. Looking at an old page about the “exciting new developments” promised for those heady years of the 1990s, I realized that every piece of technology on that list would be something I couldn’t have afforded at the time. And every piece of technology on that list would be something that, were I to find it in my house now, I would place in the recycling bin. I could hardly have imagined how what seemed so cutting-edge in my twenties would seem like trash today.
This realization quickly turned into a meditation on babies.
You might, reasonably, ask what the differences between dial-up Internet and the iPhone have to do with babies. But, increasingly, babies are thought of as themselves aspects of technology. And that’s not good news.
For years, when expecting couples are asked if they want to have a girl or a boy, the cliché response is to say, “We don’t care, as long as he or she is healthy.” Implied in that answer is that all of that, gender and health, is out of the control of the parents, a surprise to be received. Increasingly, though, these matters will not be surprises at all, but will be technological options for parents as they design their children to meet their expectations and for optimum competitiveness in a brave new world. We are already seeing alarming moves toward gene editing and performance-enhancements for conceiving children. Bioethicists have long warned of “designer babies,” and the day is getting closer all the time.
Few things have been more of a blessing to families than technology, especially medical technology. Diseases that would have resulted in death are now easily treatable. Few people die in childbirth. Infectious plagues that could wipe away entire populations are now almost extinct. Because of this, some wonder why we would not continue with technology from treating disease to working to design prenatally children who are smarter or happier than they would be or, perhaps more accurately, than their peers with whom they will one day compete for jobs, for school openings, for social status. Many ask what could be wrong with that. After all, what parent wants anything less than the best for his or her child?
The Danger of Designer Babies
As is often the case, issues that are not at the forefront of “who’s up; who’s down” electoral politics or culture wars tend to attract some strange coalitions. This is no exception. For years, one of the most insightful voices of warning on the “designer baby” front has been ecologist Bill McKibben.
McKibben is someone with whom I would have profound disagreements on several things, probably most notably his advocacy for population control efforts and the voluntary limiting of families to one child. Nonetheless, McKibben has been prophetic in noting what advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology will do to our view of human nature.
In an interview with Hope Reese, McKibben recently returned to this subject, noting not just the social implications of techno-utopian ideas of designing children but also the personal psychological and household implications as well.
“Just think about what’s going to transpire when you go into a lab and order up some upgrades for your embryo—maybe regulate their dopamine or try to add a few IQ points,” McKibben said. “Then think about what happens when you go back in five years for kid number two and the tech has gotten better. What is your first child now except Windows 8 or an iPhone 6 or something?”
McKibben noted: “One of the absolute side effects of turning people into products is that they become obsolete, which is new for human beings.”
He is right. The move to design babies is indeed a significant move from seeing children as gifts to seeing children as tech. Technology is good, but technology is quickly outdated and quickly expended. Technology is about tools. We need tools. But technology is only good if it is subservient to something greater, to the mystery of humanity, to human beings who know that our tools may be means to an end but that people never are.
If I live to see my fiftieth anniversary, some day out there in the future, I can only imagine how I will laugh at how old and clunky the technology I have now will seem, including the laptop computer on which I am typing this post. But I hope to be surrounded then by my children, who will be grown and I pray by then may have children of their own. I hope that, whatever machines or systems are at work around me, that when I look at those babies I don’t see technology but mystery, not innovation but grace.