Julian Savulescu and Robert Sparrow debate the ethics of designer babies

Last year, Julian Savulescu of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics here at Oxford debated Robert Sparrow of Monash University on the issue of using techniques like embryo selection to ensure one’s children have the best life possible.  Savulescu has notably defended not only the permissibility but the obligation to select for the best children, while Sparrow has been more critical of enhancement via embryo selection.  The transcript of their debate is now available, and their exchange helps clarify a key source of disagreement between proponents and critics of embryo selection – whether parents should be maximizing their children’s well-being, or simply giving them a good enough life.  At its core, the debate is less about the intricacies of new technologies like preimplantation genetic diagnostics (PGD) and more about the ethics of parenting.  I’ll summarize some of the key points of the debate below, but I encourage readers to have a look at the transcript to get a sense for how the dialectic plays out as well as how each interlocutor deals with a wide array of objections.

In a nutshell, Savulescu believes the (pro tanto) obligation to enhance one’s children using biomedical means such as embryo selection is a natural extension of general parental obligations to give one’s kids the best life that one can.  There is strong evidence to suggest that genes can influence a variety of traits such as intelligence, self-control and altruism; those in turn can have profound impact on a person’s opportunities and happiness.  And just as parents should improve those traits by making sure their kids get the best (affordable) education possible, parents should make sure their kids have the best genes possible.  The duty is pro tanto, which means other factors (including financial cost) can outweigh the duty, but it at least suggests those parents with the means should be using embryo selection that has proven effects on well-being.

Sparrow, however, believes this maximizing impulse is wrong-headed and, instead, parents should focus on satisficing – giving their children a good enough life, something close to species-typical normalcy. It’s fine to use PGD to prevent various health problems, insofar as those problems interfere with a species-typical life.  However, Sparrow argues that a parenting strategy of constantly maximizing a child’s potential has disturbing implications.  For example, it implies that parents really have the obligation to use another couple’s (superior) embryos and that parents who don’t enhance are in a certain sense abusing their children (like parents who don’t let their kids go to school) and should therefore be compelled to enhance.  And even if they aren’t compelled by law, intense competition will inevitably compel parents to enhance, just as there is significant pressure nowadays to ensure your child goes to the best private school possible to give them the best shot at life.  These issues can be avoided, according to Sparrow, if parents instead focus on getting their children up to an adequate threshold of opportunity and well-being.

One interesting wrinkle brought up in Q&A is the non-identity problem: by selecting a different embryo, one changes the identity of one’s child.  It is then not technically correct to say one has an obligation to a particular child to use PGD.  Savulescu avoids this issue by casting the obligation not as to specific identifiable children, but a more impersonal obligation towards whatever children one has – akin to obligations to unspecified ‘future generations’ whose identities might be altered by one’s choices.  However, this complicates the parental analogy; using PGD is no longer similar to educating a particular (identifiable) child, but rather more similar to saving money for private school before one has children.  As Sparrow points out, this makes the obligation considerably weaker than it might have appeared.

Other audience members put pressure on Sparrow’s emphasis of species-typical normalcy.  Does this mean the health interventions that pushed life expectancies beyond the species-normal levels of the time were problematic?  And would an enhancement raising child’s expected IQ from 80 to 100 (the approximate human average) then be acceptable?  Sparrow was reluctant to embrace either of these implications, but it is unclear how he can do so while also maintaining the satisficing model of improvement via embryo selection.  Furthermore, Savulescu noted that species-typical levels appear relatively arbitrary.  Why is ‘good enough’ tied to the current state of humanity?  Sparrow seems to think that some arbitrariness must be accepted in this realm because of the vagueness of the question of what’s good enough, but there still needs to be some reason behind picking species-typicality as the threshold.  The question remains why this particular threshold should be preferred over some other, equally arbitrary threshold (say, the minimal needed to survive).

The debate covers a number of issues besides these, including the technical feasibility of using PGD for enhancement and how to determine what interventions, in particular, would actually improve well-being.  The Savulescu-Sparrow debate is a nice example of the two sides of the enhancement debate engaging directly with each other; if the issues are not completely resolved by the end, one at least comes away with a better understanding of what’s at play.

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8 Responses to Julian Savulescu and Robert Sparrow debate the ethics of designer babies

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    Thanks Owen for this very fair and effective summary. One point I would clarify. You state: “it at least suggests those parents with the means should be using embryo selection that has proven effects on well-being.” I would rather say that those with the financial means should at least consider embryo selection. There are lots of reasons why someone who did not need IVF might not choose to have it, including health risks to the woman. What is clear is that people who are having IVF and PGD already, say for infertility or because of risk of genetic disorder, should employ the full gamut of genetic tests (subject to cost considerations).

    I made the joke after the talk to Rob, regarding satisficing, that maybe he believes his wife is good enough (she is indeed very clever, successful, beautiful, etc), but I believe my wife is the very best. There is an Australian saying, “Near enough is good enough.” I don’t believe that is right – I think we ought to aim to do the best we can, given the constraints of the circumstances.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “One interesting wrinkle brought up in Q&A is the non-identity problem: by selecting a different embryo, one changes the identity of one’s child.”

    Yes, these sorts of debates are often distorted by continual reference to a singular “child”, an odd mix-&-match individual who can be supplied with this or that brain, body and personality etc yet somehow remain the same person, in whose “best interests” we have to be striving both at the design stage and after his birth. In reality of course, we’re talking about blueprints for many different individuals, only one of whom will come into existence per instance of birth.

    This brings us to another disadvantage of the “singular child” concept & language: many parents of course have multiple children. And few parents want all their kids to be the same; they value variety, probably mosly because it makes life more interesting. Parents with a boy are often “hoping for a girl this time” & vice versa. The ability to make design choices in regard to a wide range of characteristics would probably encourage variety as much as it would lead to less diversity in regard to some specifications. Families might want two children who are both very bright but one who’s good at science, another who’s more of an artistic bent etc.

    Even in regard to some minority characteristics that are the subject of traditional prejudice, we might expect the provision of design choice to result in more variety, rather than less. For example, we would expect that parents who choose two straight children would outnumber those who choose one straight and one gay, but the latter parents would probably still be numerous enough to ensure that the proportion of gays in the population increases from what it is now.

  • Victoria Adkins says:

    The “pro tanto” element of Savulescu’s argument, whilst realistic and correct, I fear will cause the great divide if this obligation came into existence.

    Imagine parents discussing which gifts they got their children for Christmas; the “poorer” of the parents arfe embarrassed that they could not get their child the latest toy that other parents have managed to get, and similarly that child is excluded or even bullied at school because they did not receive said toy. This creates negative feelings for both parent and child and results in an exclusion from a certain part of society or collective group.

    Apply this same result to those who could and could not afford to make the best possible baby. The division between these sets of children and parents will be palpable. Will the “non-enhanced” children be able to mix with the “enhanced” children, will they have the required IQ level to interact? Will parents demand that their enhanced child not mix with “the others”? Will parents who could not afford to enhance their child be shunned at the mother-baby groups?

    This analogy may seem to some extreme but it has such strong potential. It happens in society today; mothers tell their children not to spend time with those children with the shabby clothes and encourages them to associate with the children of the mothers they associate themselves with. At least in today’s society (we hope) children will tend not to think of such material things as money and are drawn to making friends through character and shared interests. However, if characteristics and interests are pre-selected by those who can afford the gene enhancement than those children are more than likely to end up being friends. Therefore the lunch halls will be divided between the enhanced children and the “good enoughs”.

    This will eventually lead to a strain between parent and child relationships as the child begins to resent the parents choice or financial restriction on not enhancing them. In today’s society we can tell our children that not having the latest toy doesn’t make them a less better person. How can we tell them they are still a “better” person when they don’t have the genes to back it up?

    • Matt Sharp says:

      “Will parents demand that their enhanced child not mix with “the others”? Will parents who could not afford to enhance their child be shunned at the mother-baby groups?”

      Owen points out that “There is strong evidence to suggest that genes can influence a variety of traits such as intelligence, self-control and altruism”. If parents have children who are enhanced altruistically, and have themselves selected altruistic enhancement, it seems rather unlikely that they would seek to impose social boundaries between their children and the unenhanced.

      • Nikolas Schaffer says:

        And if enhanced altruism became widespread it would make it more likely that all such enhancements would be available to all prospective parents via the national health system.

        • Matt Sharp says:

          True, and I suspect that even if they weren’t provided by the state, the private sector would compete to reduce the cost and ultimately make enhancements affordable to many.

  • Victoria Adkins says:

    “If parents have children who are enhanced altruistically…”

    The big word here is IF. Some parents may not consider that the most important characteristic is altruism, and today not every parent teaches there child to treat everyone equally. I just hope that the majority of those who do will outweigh those who do not when it comes to enhancement.

    Thank you for your comments.

  • Victoria Adkins says:



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