The topic of reproductive choice generates discussion about how much freedom parents should have over the genetic make-up of their babies. It seems likely that we will soon have the capability of choosing a child’s particular attributes. But should parents be able to do this: select aesthetic physical attributes, like eye and hair color—or things like intelligence and strength? This possibility raises a host of philosophical issues and consequences to consider which is explored in the film Gattaca.
The film Gattaca is set in a world in which gene manipulation is common. When parents decide to have children, they often do so with the help of geneticists. Diseases are weeded out, the parents’ best attributes are selected. One can even design a baby with a specific purpose in mind— to be a best swimmer, or to be an astronaut. Children produced this way are called “valids.”
Some parents, however, chose to reproduce naturally, letting their child’s genetic code be random. Society is arranged so these “invalids” are condemned to menial jobs. Only valids have access to professional employment, and background checks are constantly performed.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Vincent: The Invalid in Gattaca
The story of Gattaca follows Vincent, an “invalid” working as a janitor at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. At birth, his genetic code made him highly likely to be subject to many disorders, and he has an expected lifespan of only 30.2 years. He nevertheless dreams of being an astronaut.
He uses the genetic material of a valid named Jerome to pass himself off as a valid and, through his own efforts, he earns a spot as a navigator on a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. The deception is almost exposed; but the background checker ends up looking the other way and the movie ends with Vincent blasting off on his mission to Titan.
The moral of the story—that you should not let the expectations of others determine what you think you can do—seems fine. But, given that, in Gattaca, it’s genetics that are setting the limits, it’s hard to take the moral seriously. Not that genetic determinism—which suggests that your genetic makeup determines everything about you—is right; but genes do set limits. If Vincent has a congenital heart defect, he is going to die on the way to Titan and no amount of hard work and determination will change that fact.
Learn more about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Natural or Unnatural?
Still, Gattaca raises serious concerns about the development of genetic engineering technology that would allow for designer babies. One common worry is that creating designer babies are immoral because it’s “unnatural”. But such arguments fallaciously rely on what philosopher Daniel Maguire calls the biologism fallacy: “the fallacious effort to wring a moral mandate out of raw biological facts.”
Something being natural does not make it moral; being unnatural doesn’t make it immoral.
One possible objection is that designer babies would be viewed by their parents as commodities, rather than persons, and treat them accordingly. But such worries seem to be overblown.
For instance, that parents of children born of in vitro fertilization don’t treat them as property. Indeed, studies have shown that, on average, the quality of parenting in families who use in vitro fertilization is actually superior to those who reproduce “naturally.” And this makes sense. No family who seeks out in vitro fertilization ends up with an unwanted child.
Choice and Unnatural Selection
One legitimate worry is expressed by Marcy Darnovsky from the Center for Genetics and Society in California. If the design is too specific, the child’s freedom could be restricted. In Gattaca, Jerome was “designed” to become the world’s best swimmer—and his failure to do so drove him to throw himself in front of a car. But this would not be a reason to ban designer babies. After all, some parents already do this—demanding that their child become a doctor or play their favorite sport.
Once such practices become common, and thus our evolution as a species become dictated by, what they call, unnatural selection and nonrandom mutation, a new species would arise. But this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. If the genetic line of humans just ended, that would be sad. But if it leads to the birth of more intelligent humans who are less violent, more durable, and more capable of living a full life—that is something to be celebrated.
Learn more about science fiction and the real world.
An Unjust World
More worrisome are the short-term effects we see in Gattaca. If the technology was not universally available, you would quickly see society divided into two segments—the valids and the invalids, the haves and the have-nots—with prime jobs and positions reserved for the valids. Worse still, initially, such technology would only be available to the very rich. This would give their children an even greater advantage in society than they already have, greatly widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
But the thing to consider is this: Would you want to live in the society Gattaca depicts? As the philosopher John Rawls says, one way to determine the fairness of a society is by determining whether you would want to enter it if you did not know which person you would be. And it seems the society depicted in Gattaca doesn’t fit the bill. It seems not, because you could just as easily be a valid as an invalid. It certainly is not one that adheres to John Rawls’ principle of justice.
Common Questions about Gattaca and the Ethics of Genetic Selection
In Gattaca, some people choose to have children who are born after consulting geneticists. These children, the “valids”, are genetically selected to be disease free and can be engineered to be best at certain professions.
In Gattaca, people who are born with a natural mix of genes rather than being genetically modified are called “invalids”. They are condemned to menial jobs. Only valids have access to professional employment, and background checks are constantly performed.
One common worry is that creating designer babies is an immoral act because it’s “unnatural”. But such arguments fallaciously rely on what philosopher Daniel Maguire calls the biologism fallacy: “the fallacious effort to wring a moral mandate out of raw biological facts.” Something being natural does not make it moral; being unnatural doesn’t make it immoral.