Ever see the movie “Gattaca”? It was a strange, half-sci-fi thriller, half-drama released in 1998. It asked what would life be like for people conceived “the old way” in a time of genetic engineering? Though it didn’t make any major waves, the movie portrayed a world in the not-too-distant future where discrimination was no longer based on gender, race or sexual orientation, but on genes. Babies born through science were clean, disease-free and expected to live long, healthy lives. Parents could select the gender of their child at the moment of scientific conception.

Angela Cesere

Ladies and gentlemen, the “not-too-distant future” is now. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that “medical tourists” from all over the world are coming to America to take advantage of an in-vitro fertilization option that’s banned in their home countries. According to the report, doctors in some American clinics are selling the opportunity to select the sex of a baby for close to $20,000 per child.

There are several reasons this is banned in other countries. First, it opens the door to something like “Gattaca” becoming a reality. If we get desensitized to the idea of choosing a baby’s gender, why not choose a baby’s eye color, hair color, height or skin color? Why not give your son a strong jaw and broad shoulders, or your daughter a slim waist and long legs? It’s all a matter of choice, isn’t it?

Yes, genetic manipulation can do beneficial things, like screen out debilitating diseases. As genetic science advances further, there may come a day when genes for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart failure and even forms of cancer can be prevented by simple selection of embryos. That in itself is not a bad thing. The problem is that this technology is not available to everyone.

Its immense cost yields the possibility where, in another not-too-distant future, the rich could all be genetically healthier, taller, smarter and more beautiful. Imagine what the gap between rich and poor would be then. There would be much fewer stories of people overcoming socio-economic hardships to achieve success because the poor would literally not have it in them.

Debate over affirmative action would be taken in a whole new direction. Estate taxes would do nothing to prevent the establishment of a new, biologically superior aristocracy. This is not an unrealistic fiction; it’s the logical extrapolation of the current practice.

Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, who offers the gender-selection service at his fertilization clinics in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, defended the practice in the article, arguing that it all balances out in the end because just as many customers choose boys as girls. This still doesn’t cover the larger problem of gender discrimination. Steinberg admits in his article that his customers’ gender choices are segregated by country. According to his quote in the article, “The Chinese like boys. Canadians like girls.” It appears as if his practice has the potential to create not only socio-economic problems, but demographic ones as well.

This is not the plot of a movie. It’s real life. The wealthy can actually choose the sex of their baby. Scientists and lawmakers should consider tough restrictions on this practice to protect our reality from becoming a movie conspiracy theory. Genetic technology can do a lot of good, but like with any great power we may wield, we must exercise responsibility.

Hildreth can be reached at childret@umich.edu.

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