In Defense of Designer Babies

by Benjamin Studebaker

An American lesbian couple (Jennifer Cramblett and Amanda Zinkon) had a baby via a sperm bank, but are now suing because the sperm bank accidentally gave them the wrong sperm. How do they know? Their baby, Payton (no, not that Payton), turned out to be mixed race. Cramblett and Zinkon claim that they need compensation for the financial and social of doing right by a mixed race child in a society that remains to some degree implicitly racist (e.g. relocating to a more racially diverse and accepting area). The Guardian’s Julie Bindel claims that their lawsuit “smacks of racism” and eugenics. What’s really going on here?

There are two distinct issues at hand:

  1. The Eugenics Question: Is it bad for parents to have genetic preferences for their children and to take action to influence their children’s genetic outcomes?
  2. The Racism Question: Assuming it is permissible for parents to have genetic preferences in general, is the specific genetic preference in question (i.e. that the child be white as opposed to mixed race) a racist preference?

Let’s deal with each question in turn.

The Eugenics Question

Many potential parents have genetic preferences for their children. People often are reluctant to have children with those that have genetic traits they consider undesirable. Some people even choose not to have children because they are concerned about passing on their own genetic traits–comedian Sarah Silverman notably has expressed aversion to having children for fear that they might inherit her depressive tendencies. Theoretically, if Silverman could one day ensure through genetic engineering that her children would not inherit her depression, she might decide to have some. Is this kind of thinking okay?

There are three broad camps of people who take issue with this:

  1. Religious Conservatives–these people believe that attempting to influence the genetic outcomes of one’s children is to interfere in god’s plan, which is omnibenevolent. They accuse those who would attempt this of “playing god”, of criticizing god’s work.
  2. Radical Ableists–these people believe that having genetic preferences necessarily implies that some people are better than others and consequently discriminates against the “differently abled”. They further argue that relative to super humans who could fly or run faster than us, all human beings are disabled, so the distinction is arbitrary.
  3. Eugenics Opponents–these people believe that attempting to influence the genetic outcomes of one’s children is to do eugenics, and that eugenics is bad because it’s a racist Nazi policy.

Do any of these have merit? Let’s think about it.

The Conservative Objection

If an omnibenevolent god has created a universe in which it is possible for human beings to unlock the secrets of genetic engineering, it may well be part of his plan that we do so. If we see a drowning child, attempting to save the child could just as easily be part of god’s plan as it could be contrary to it. There’s no obvious reason to believe genetic engineering is or is not part of the plan. Additionally, one could make the further argument that if god is omnipotent, his plans cannot be violated by definition, and it would be a tremendous conceit for mere mortals to think that their pithy efforts at genetic engineering amounted to any kind of substantive challenge to the all-powerful supreme being. (For more analysis of this kind of view, check out my piece from a few days ago.)

The Ableist Objection

I wrote a full piece about the ableists in August of last year. To summarize the argument in brief, while it is definitely true that our perception of what is a normal level of ability is arbitrary, this does not change the reality that it is nearly always better to have more abilities rather than less. It is better to be able to do high school calculus or to walk than to be unable to do those things, and it follows from there that it is better to be able to fly or do quantum physics than it is to be able merely to do high school calculus or walk. This does not mean that those who are relatively less able should be killed, or that we should not accommodate them (because this would be harmful), but it does mean that it would be justifiable to attempt to use genetic engineering to ensure our children have the maximum ability we can procure for them.

Eugenics Opponents

There are a lot of people who are intrinsically hostile to this behavior because they believe it to be eugenics, and they despise eugenics purely because they associate it with Nazi Germany and racism. These people do not really understand what eugenics is. The term “eugenics” comes from the Greek prefix “eu-“, for “good”, and the Greek word “genos”, or birth. All it literally means is “good birth”, and we could fairly call any practice “eugenics” if it attempted to improve in any way the level of natural potential or ability that human beings have. The Nazis happened to take “good” to mean “white with blonde hair and blue eyes”, but all reasonable people today recognize that changing a man’s hair, eye, or skin color does not alter his intrinsic natural abilities and has nothing to do with goodness.

Now, there are many different ways to attempt to achieve “good birth”, and some of those ways are morally dubious:

  1. We can consider possible genetic outcomes when choosing whether or not we will have children and with whom.
  2. We can use genetic engineering to ensure our children have the most abilities they can have.
  3. We can sterilize people who are not capable of providing children with good births.
  4. We can kill people who are not capable of providing children with good births.

The Nazis had an entirely false definition of “good birth” and primarily used #4 to achieve their ends. It is very possible to believe that eugenics is permissible, but with a different conception of “good birth” and with alternative means. Historically, many good people have used #1.  #2 has not yet become fully possible, and in its absence some reasonable people have advocated for #3 in some situations, but #3 has little mainstream support, although most everyone recognizes it is morally superior to tactic #4. #3 and #4 are morally controversial for the same reason–they involve seriously harming already extant people. #1 and #2 are different–no one need be sterilized, killed, or otherwise harmed to practice eugenics through autonomous choice or through genetic engineering.

If the day should come when we can identify a genetic marker for intelligence and modify the genes of our children to ensure they have higher capacities, choosing to do this is not intrinsically racist and does not harm anyone unless it is accompanied by a program of mass murder or mass sterilization. Eugenics itself does not necessarily entail either of those methods. There is no reason to believe that caring about the genetic outcomes of one’s children necessarily implies an endorsement of the Nazi genocide. This arguement is a classic reductio ad Hitlerum, an invalid claim that because something has any association with Hitler, it must necessarily be wrong.

The Racism Question

All that said, Cramblett and Zinkon are suing not because the sperm bank used the sperm of a person who carried a genetic disease or inability, but because the bank used the sperm of a black man. Does this make them racists potentially in league with the Führer? Not necessarily. Cramblett and Zinkon claim to object to the black sperm not because they themselves believe blacks to be inferior, but because a black child carries with it unanticipated financial and social costs. They claim that because their community is more racist than most, they will be forced to relocate if they want to ensure that their daughter grows up in a tolerant, nurturing environment.

Now, let’s put aside the empirical question of whether or not Cramblett and Zinkon really do face obstacles as parents because they live in a racist community or in a society that is implicitly biased against black people. Establishing the truth of this claim would require an additional piece (which I’ve written, if you want to read it). For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this claim is true. If it’s true that some people live in a community where their children will be treated better if they are one color as opposed to another, then skin color confers a social advantage on some children and a social disadvantage on other children. Given the choice, it would be reasonable for prospective parents to prefer that their children be of the advantaged color rather than the disadvantaged one. The sperm bank could reasonably be said to have harmed these parents by giving their child a social impediment.

Now, some people have taken this line of thought further and argued that if Cramblett and Zinkon deserve compensation, then all black parents should get reparations. After all, their children suffer the same disadvantages as Payton. This argument was recently made in The New Yorker by Matthew McKnight. The problem with this appeal is that black parents choose to have children knowing that they will be black and that they will suffer from whatever disadvantages are intrinsic to being black in America today. When Cramblett and Zinkon decided to have their child, they did not sign up for that. The cost was imposed on them by the sperm bank–they did not agree to it. By contrast, when black parents choose to have children, they are implicitly saying while they may regret the costs of being born black in America today, they are willing to sustain those costs.

This certainly does not mean that we should stop making an effort to reduce relevant racial inequalities where ever we may find them, but a reparations program cannot be justified on these grounds.