Looking for Biopolitical Trouble

Researchers at Cornell university have
developed a genetically modified human embryo expressing a green fluorescent
protein
. This is a technology already demonstrated
in animals (and plants), including monkeys. But the news that it had been done to a
human embryo has stirred up reactions worrying about designer babies. Are we
already in a brave new world of designer babies? And how should we handle the biopolitical debate?

It should be noted that the research was
reported last autumn at a scientific conference, but became news thanks to a Sunday
Times news story
linked to the current controversy
surrounding the UK
reproduction and embryo bill
. The researchers were not too keen on how
they work had been misrepresented
, and several bioethicists also pointed out
that there was a big difference between adding a marker gene in an embryo and
actually modifying humans. The embryo was not even a viable embryo (it
had two extra sets of chromosomes), so there was at no point any possibility of
it developing into a human.

While the experiment did not aim at
designer children in any way (it was looking at early embryonic development) it
did demonstrate the unsurprising fact that methods that work in other species
work on human cells. Given that transgenic human cells are widely used in
research, both as cell cultures, in animal models and gene therapy in living
humans, and that our skills at inserting and regulating genes are growing,
transgenic humans are certainly possible. Current methods of germline modification
are crude and would limit the applicability (not to mention the morality) of
doing it, but it is not far outside our capabilities.

The big problem is that the ethical debate
(both professional and public) about “designer babies” often use
rationalisations and surface issues rather than attempting to deal with the
thick value differences that actually underlie the controversy. People have
strong convictions about new technology more based on cultural and political ideas
than facts and rational assessments
. Even if the debate about when an embryo
gains personhood/a soul
could be resolved it is highly doubtful
that people would give up their pro- or anti- stances: they are based on
something deeper than ideas of personhood. The real battle is between different
conceptions of what a human being is – an embodiment of an eternal core or a changing
biological process, and biopolitical views of whether there exists a natural order
that must not be changed or whether everything is up for liberal freedom. It is
a struggle about sacred, often badly articulated, values.

Deep value differences can be brought to
light and discussed sanely by people of good will. The real trick is to agree
on how to live in the same society as people who have fundamentally different
views on what is acceptable. Compromising on sacred values is not something
anybody does lightly, yet that is likely what liberal democracies will have to
do. The first step towards that is to admit that this is a biopolitical value debate, not a straightforward political debate.

Biopolitical value differences do not correspond to the traditional political
ideological differences. Bioconservatism (we should not tamper with the given) can
be found across the political spectrum, as can various kinds of  bioliberalism (we are allowed to change nature
when we think it is good,
either collectively or individually). This makes many
political parties unwilling to even touch these issues, since they would break
party discipline.

These views link to other views on what the
relationship between humans and nature should be (stewards? A humble species
among others? Masters? Gardeners? Co-creators?), human nature (fixed or
changeable?) and technology (a force for good? Evil? Autonomous or a tool for
society?) that have plenty of political importance in more traditional issues. Maybe
the way out is to recognize that as biotechnology amplifies the importance of
biopolitics it will in the long run become impossible to shove it under the rug
in preference for traditional political values. The political groups to first
articulate consistent biopolitical values will have a good chance of setting
the agenda of tomorrow. Hence it is in the interest of all political groups
(and for the overall democratic discourse on technology) to try to formulate
biopolitics.

Whether that will happen before or after the
grown-up designer babies are of voting age is another matter.

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2 Responses to Looking for Biopolitical Trouble

  • DeeVee says:

    If I had cancer and it could be cured by using the process of making me glow in the dark…I’d do it in a heart beat. Get real…stop bothering people and making decisions for others.

    If a “glow in the dark” embryo helps to identify fetal anomalies, then who the hell are you to demand anyone stop helping to either cure or prevent birth defects.

    Move on…this is a new world…you are the same kind of flat earth types…who use to burn scientists at the stake for being witches.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    While I share your bioliberal views DeeVee, I think biopolitics matters. Mainly because a lot of it isn’t free right now – try to set up an embryonic stem cell lab in Italy, get a cognition enhancement drug approved by the FDA or distribute a genetically modified species in the wild. You will find that the social and political context suddenly matters a lot for what you can and cannot do. Complaining that the opponents are luddites is not going help, neither is just trying it, laws be damned. To get research funding, avoid legal and physical attacks, and to get the sizeable resources of creativity and support available in any society on one’s side, one needs to establish trust and convince others about biopolitical positions. That is going to involve some real discussion and politicking, not just shouting slogans.

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