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Designer Babies and Slippery Slopes

Designer babies are in the news again. The LA Fertility Institutes, headed by a 1970s IVF pioneer, have offered the opportunity for potential parents to choose traits such as the eye and hair colour of their children:

Unsurprisingly, slippery slope arguments have already begun to appear: Marcy Darnovsky, director of the Centre for Genetics and Society, has said: ‘The concern is that we'll be creating a society with new sorts of discrimination. Now it’s eye and hair colour. What happens if it’s height and intelligence?’

Slopes can be slippery in different ways, and they can be more or less slippery. The strongest form of slippery slope argument points to a logical implication: if you accept A (which you seem to think is good), then you must accept B (which presumably you think is bad). Pretty clearly, we don’t have an argument of that kind in the present case. There’s no logical inconsistency in  being in favour of parents’ being allowed to select certain traits of their children, while being against discrimination. Nor of course is the existence of selection itself inconsistent with the absence of discrimination.

A more common form of the argument appeals to the lack of a non-arbitrary stopping point. The idea is that you should not accept A because A might conceivably lead to B, and you could find no non-arbitrary place to draw the line between A and B. That doesn’t seem to be Darnovsky’s argument, however, since it wouldn’t be arbitrary to stop selection if it were clearly leading to discrimination, but to permit it up to that point.

The argument here is essentially an appeal to consequences. As stated, however, it is clearly too strong. The concern cannot plausibly that we will be creating a society with new forms of discrimination. Rather, the idea must be that trait-selection may lead to these new forms of discrimination. So we can imagine a world in which people whose parents haven’t selected for certain eye or hair colours are discriminated against, which we can certainly accept would be undesirable.

The main issue here is how likely it is that discrimination on grounds of eye or hair colour will arise. On the face of it, it looks rather unlikely. People’s tastes in eye and hair colour vary a lot, so not everyone would go for (say) blue-eyed and blond children. And these kinds of characteristics anyway do not at present seem to be the basis for any systematic discrimination.

But, the argument suggests, selection for eye and hair colour may lead to selection for height and intelligence, and these may provide the basis for new kinds of discrimination. Again, however, it’s not clear why trait-selection even of these characteristics would lead to new forms of discrimination. There may be discrimination against short people now, in which case trait-selection wouldn’t be creating anything new. And if there isn’t any, then it’s not clear why it should be created merely through there being more tall people around.

Appeals to slippery slopes often rely on the idea that things could get out of control. Once you’re on that slope, you’re just going to keep slipping down and there’s nothing you can do. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with trait-selection. If it does turn out to have consequences we’d prefer to avoid, then we can stop doing it. Fertility clinics do not operate in a legislative vacuum.

So there’s no strong argument here for preventing those few parents who want to choose the eye or hair colour of their children to get on with it. Even if there is a slope, it is not especially slippery — we can get off at any time.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. I agree that the slippery slope arguments don’t seem to provide good reasons against selection of certain traits here, but I do think there are other concerns.

    Consider for example the way that a child might feel if they were selected for certain traits. They may grow up feeling that their parents place an unduly strong importance on their physical appearance. This could cause a great deal of distress, especially if in some way they do not measure up to this appearance or to certain stereotypes that are associated with it (e.g. if the blonde haired blue eyed girl turns out to be a massive tomboy).

    I grant that this can happen anyway, but isn’t this just another way of loading a certain set of values or expectations upon children.

    Also, think about the siblings. Imagine if you had not had certain traits selected, and had a certain physical appearance, while your sibling, whose embryo had been selected for certain traits, had an extremely different appearance. Wouldn’t this be likely to lead to a feeling of inadequacy or inferiority?

  2. “Fertility clinics do not operate in a legislative vacuum.”

    nah, pretty much they do…

    “Even if there is a slope, it is not especially slippery — we can get off at any time.”

    Eh, no…

    “So there’s no strong argument here for preventing those few parents who want to choose the eye or hair colour of their children to get on with it.”

    Once you go there, what’s stopping choosing the sex and whether or not it will be gay? What’s stopping creating thousands of embryos just to get the one you want?

  3. Designing children according to current tastes has two ethical drawbacks: (1) It makes people more like manufactured objects and hence reduces the mystical value of the individual human being which lies at the heart of liberal democracy. (2) It makes less likely the further development of humans through evolution. The first is the most important drawback. Liberal democracy, including the strong value we put on property rights, depends in large measure on the untouchable value of the individual human being. Without that value, the individual fades into a part of a collectivity and rights disappear in favor of utilitarian balancing. As the human becomes more like a manufactured item, perhaps a commodity, it becomes less and less possible to hold that individual to be intrinsically valuable. As to (2), there is some value in leaving things to chance to allow further development of the human species in a way that makes the species more able to deal with environmental change.

    On the other hand, we have always done some trait selection through the encouragement of our children to associate with particular populations of preferred mates. One of the reasons for picking a college or university for our children may be that.

  4. Thanks for these comments.

    Ethics girl: You’re right. These are potential dangers, and parents should certainly be counselled to avoid them if at all possible. But I think these dangers are not sufficient to justify interference with parental choice in the cases I discussed.

    Yarrr: Well, whether there is a legislative vacuum here or not is an empirical question. If there is one, then I recommend we fill it and use the law to stop slides down slopes as necessary.

    Dennis: If I understand you, your claim is that embryo selection is likely to undermine the idea that individuals have certain rights which can’t be violated. I see little reason to believe this is likely to happen. Your right not to be tortured, say, doesn’t depend on your having eyes of a certain colour, or on your eyes being the colour they are because your parents didn’t select the embryo from which you developed, and I think people don’t think of rights in that way. If I’m wrong, of course, then there would be a slope here we might well want to avoid. The gene pool argument is a strong one, I think, so we’d need to monitor the choices parents were making, and the number of interventions being made.

  5. Michelle Hutchinson

    Shouldn’t we be more worried about increasing levels of present kinds of discrimination than new forms of discrimination? In the height case, surely the worry is that if short people are currently discriminated against, and selection is allowed, the people who have the resources will get gradually taller and taller, while others stay the same height? Then the discrimination would grow worse because the differences causing it increased.

  6. I feel that Dennis may have the strongest argument. While technological advance is quite important, I believe that there are too many things to worry about (i.e. The gene pool, psychological issues with the child, etc.) in comparison to the slightly materialistic advantages of being able to choose hair and eye color. If one wishes to talk about hereditary diseases, this would be completely different, but something so trivial as hair and eye color does not need to be messed with; not for the prices we would have to pay.

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