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The Politics of Women's Health

Emerging Biotechnologies: Cloning

Human Germline Manipulation and Cloning as Women's Issues

by Marcy Darnovsky, Ph.D.
November 20, 2000

Imagine a world in which well-off people planning to have a baby can buy all sorts of "enhancements" for their future child -- better memory, perfect pitch, straighter nose, longer legs. Imagine the marketing ploys for such "consumer eugenics," and the anxious considerations of parents who want to give their future children the best start in life. Imagine a woman's experience of this sort of baby-making: the physical and emotional difficulties of in vitro fertilization; the challenge of selecting, or being pressured to select, particular traits from among those on offer for her future child; the necessity to then determine if the genetic manipulations had produced in the fetus "unintended consequences" that would lead her, voluntarily or under pressure, reluctantly or not, to an abortion. Imagine the children born after these extraordinarily risky genetic procedures whose lives would be shadowed or interrupted by such unintended consequences.

Imagine the lives of the many, many children whose parents could not afford genetic "improvements" in a world where the affluent are routinely born with them.

Finally, imagine a world in which children are "designed" with features beyond any that human beings currently possess. Imagine the widening social fissures. Imagine the end of our common humanity.

Human Genetic Manipulation: An Active Agenda

Such a world is not only being imagined, but actively promoted by a group of influential scientists and others who claim to be acting for the good of humanity, and in the tradition of reproductive choice. Their vision of genetic castes and consumer eugenics is finding its way into mainstream American culture, accepted and sometimes endorsed by major newspapers, news magazines, and journals of opinion; depicted by artists; dramatized in Hollywood movies and a television serial. This "techno-eugenic" vision is no longer science fiction. It is an active agenda.

Two linchpin technologies could bring a techno-eugenic world into being. One is "human germline engineering," altering the genes of early-stage embryos to affect the traits of the children who develop from them. The other is "reproductive cloning," the creation of a child who would be the near genetic duplicate of another person. Together, these technologies can be called "human genetic manipulation."

Human germline engineering and reproductive cloning would constitute an unprecedented and dangerous transformation of reproduction and of the lives of women and children. They would exacerbate the commodification of children and the commercialization of procreation. Already, the advocacy campaign for these technologies poses sticky challenges for advocates of women's health and reproductive rights, intersecting as it does with the politics of abortion.

Women, the New Eugenics, and the Commercialization of Reproduction

Prenatal screening and preimplantation diagnosis now make it possible to eliminate fetuses and embryos with a number of identifiable genetic conditions. As disability rights activists point out, women are already being put in the position of "eugenic gatekeepers."1 Human genetic modification, to whatever extent it turns out to be technically possible, would amplify the powers of eugenic selection many times over.

If consumer eugenics were to take hold, who would actually exercise "consumer preference" for a genetic "enhancement?"  Who would decide what was on offer?

Writing in Time magazine, Princeton geneticist Lee Silver spins a scenario set in the year 2024, in which a fertility clinic advertises for "Organic Enhancement" on "websites frequented by women with babymaking on their minds." "`Why not give your child the best possible start in life?," Silver's hypothetical ad campaign asks. But "keep in mind, you must act before you get pregnant. Don't be sorry after she's born. This really is a once-in-lifetime opportunity for your child-to-be." 2

Human germline engineering and cloning would exacerbate existing trends toward "reproduction for profit." Already, nearly all developments in genetic science take place under corporate auspices. Researchers work either for biotechnology companies, or in university laboratories where there are significant personal, departmental, or institutional financial stakes in the success of commercial biotech enterprises.

The Commodification and Geneticization of Children

Advocates of human genetic manipulation have written vivid scenes of a not-too-distant future in which parents contemplate the "enhancements" they'll select for their children. But their imagined futures are vague about the lives of the children that might be born after such procedures. Some of the comments made by human germline engineering advocates, however, are suggestive. Dr. Gregory Pence, professor of philosophy in the Schools of Medicine and Arts/Humanities at the University of Alabama, writes: "[M]any people love their retrievers and their sunny dispositions around children and adults. Could people be chosen in the same way? Would it be so terrible to allow parents to at least aim for a certain type, in the same way that great breeders...try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family?"3

Talk of "breeding" children strikes most people as repugnant in part because the notion of creating a pre-selected type of child to meet "the needs of a family" suggests that the child might be valued only for possessing certain characteristics. Genetically engineered children would, in fact, be designed to specifications chosen and paid for by parents, from among those on offer by genetic technicians.

While unreasonable and unfulfilled parental expectations can certainly flourish in the absence of genetic modification, expectations grounded in technical claims and procedures would likely be far more pronounced. However subtly, the prospect -- or the illusion -- of selecting certain traits could make parents less likely to understand their children as emerging autonomous beings who develop in continuous interaction with their physical and social environments.

How might a "designed child" experience herself? Perhaps she would feel constrained by her real or imagined genetic capabilities and propensities, and surrender her "open future" to a mistaken conviction that her destiny lay in her genes.

Actually, just as we are unable to foresee the physical consequences of manipulating the genetic material of an early human embryo, we have no way to reliably predict the emotional or psychological effects of germline engineering or cloning on children or families.

But we can speculate with some assurance that if germline engineering were to become a common upscale practice, the effects on "unenhanced" children could be devastating. Their senses of themselves, and their life chances, could be irrevocably altered. Human germline engineering could encode existing prejudices into the very bodies of future generations. The Council for Responsible Genetics notes:

"[T]he standards for what is genetically desirable will be those of the society's economically and politically dominant groups. This will only reinforce prejudices and discrimination in a society where they already exist."4

Perhaps it's too obvious to state, but dramatic improvements in the lives of children are well within our reach. We can focus our energies and resources on prenatal care for women; on better nutrition, health care, preschool care, and education for children; and on restructuring work and social expectations to allow adults more time with children.

Proposals to genetically redesign children drastically miss the mark. They substitute for relatively straightforward social changes a hubristic technical fix that would encourage a consumerist mentality toward children and all human life.

Human Genetic Manipulation and the Politics of Abortion

In their effort to make the idea of designer babies and human clones publicly acceptable, many advocates have adopted the language of reproductive choice. They have begun to argue explicitly that support for human genetic manipulation -- or at least, refusing to condemn those who may want to practice it -- is the "pro-choice" position. A recently published pro-germline engineering book, for example, is titled "From Chance to Choice."5

This use of pro-choice language is likely to foster confusion between the unprecedented and unjustifiable practice of "enhancing" the genetic makeup of a future child, and the fundamental right to end an unwanted pregnancy. In some circles, it will take focused effort to make it clear that altering the genes of one's children and the genetic legacy of humanity is not among the reproductive rights for which so many women and women's organizations have struggled.

The situation is further muddied because opponents of abortion have been vocal critics of human germline engineering and cloning. Their concerns about "playing God," and their opposition to the destruction of human embryos that these technologies would entail, are often the only arguments against designer babies and human clones that are heard.

In fact, the U.S. legislative and policy debates over human germline engineering and cloning have so far taken place almost completely within the framework of abortion politics. Opposition has been voiced mostly by abortion opponents; pro-choice forces have for the most part not yet engaged these issues. Advocates of women's health and choice will need to develop a voice for women's reproductive rights that is firmly pro-choice and firmly opposed to the genetic modification of human beings.

Though supporters of human genetic manipulation and opponents of abortion typically conflict, they share a tendency to focus their attention on embryos, and to sideline both pregnant women and the children that women bear and raise.6 Anti-abortion activists often depict human embryos as independent entities completely separate from the woman in whose womb they are carried. Similarly, discussions of genetically modified children center on the early embryo and the "improved" future scientists can give it, depicting the mother of the future designer baby only as the fertility clinic client picking and choosing her child-to-be's traits.

Banning Human Genetic Manipulation: The Tasks Ahead

The techno-eugenic agenda is most actively promoted in the United States, where its appeal resonates with cultural assumptions about individual rights, consumer sovereignty, and the "free" market. But we believe that proscriptions on human germline engineering and cloning will attract strong support when their meaning and consequences are more widely known and fully understood.

To build this support, we will need an effective social movement dedicated to bringing the new genetic and reproductive technologies under social control. As of yet, very few organizations have focused on these technologies or their social and political implications.7 But that situation is changing. In 1999, discussions began about the urgent situation regarding human genetic manipulation technologies among leaders of environmental, religious, political, philanthropic, disability rights, women's, indigenous people's, and other groups. The Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies was set up to facilitate that continuing process, and to begin working toward informing the general public and building organizational infrastructure.8

While the prospect of genetic manipulation challenges humanity as a whole, it particularly threatens groups that have been historically targeted or disempowered. Human germline engineering and cloning are also of special concern to women because they are so closely tied to reproduction.

Women's organizations, in the U.S. and internationally, are positioned to play a crucial role in the political mobilizations and cultural shifts that will be necessary to challenge the techno-eugenic agenda. Though only a few women's groups have taken positions on the new human genetics, many have thought long and hard about reproductive technologies. Abortion rights groups will have little choice about whether or not to become involved: They will increasingly be drawn into the politics of genetic manipulation because supporters of germline engineering and cloning have taken up their language, keywords, and appeals. Other women's advocates will want to engage these issues as matters of equity and social justice; of human, women's, and children's rights and health; and of the commercialization of reproduction and commodification of life.

It will be far easier to prevent a techno-eugenic future if we act before human germline engineering and cloning develop further, either as technology, as ideology, or as business interest. Rejecting the dangerous technologies and horrific politics of genetic manipulation is crucial if we are to protect what can be called, with chilling new meaning, a "human" future.

A longer version of this article is forthcoming in Sex, Race and Surveillance: Feminist Perspectives from the US, edited by Jael Silliman and Anannya Bhattacharjee (South End Press, Fall 2001).

Acknowledgments

Thanks and appreciation to Lisa Handwerker, whose research and insights have been key in writing this paper; to Barbara Haber for the formulation in the introductory section and other suggestions; and to Anannya Bhattacharjee, Kristin Dawkins, Giovanna Di Chiro, Rich Hayes, Martha Herbert, Ruth Hubbard, Katie Kleinsasser, Fiona Miller, Judy Norsigian, Jael Silliman, and Maureen Sullivan for helpful comments and encouragement.

End Notes

1 Gregor Wolbring, Science and the Disadvantaged (The Edmonds Institute, 2000).

2 Lee M. Silver, "Can You Make My Kid Smarter? A Dispatch from the frontiers of 21st century genetics," Time, November 8, 1999.

3 Gregory Pence, Who's Afraid of Human Cloning? (New York: Roman & Littlefield, 1998), page 168.

4 Council for Responsible Genetics, Position Paper on Human Germ Line Manipulation, 1992.

5 Allen Buchanan, Dan W. Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wikler, From Chance to Choice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

6 This important observation was made by Lisa Handwerker.

7 In the U.S., the only consistent organizational presence opposing human germline manipulation has been the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG), a small Cambridge-based group. CRG has played a key role in defining and promoting a public-interest agenda for biotechnology since its founding in 1983.

In Britain, the Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering (CAHGE) was formed in 1998 "to bring both genetic research and its application under democratic control." See http://www.hgalert.org.

8 The Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies, 466 Green Street, San Francisco, CA 94133. Phone: 415-434-1403. To subscribe to its free on-line monthly newsletter, email teel@adax.com.

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