Designing Amiss

IQ2US’s Debate about Designer Babies Ignores the Original Designer

On Feb. 17, the nonprofit organization Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2US) hosted an online debate on the proposition, “Use Gene Editing to Make Better Babies.” According to its website, IQ2US is a “nonpartisan” group dedicated to addressing the “extreme polarization” of contemporary American society by restoring “critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse.” They seek to do so via “thought-provoking conversations around the most important issues of the day.”

As context for the debate, IQ2US posited this scenario:

A genetic disease runs in your family. Your doctor tells you that, should you wish to have a child, that child is likely to also carry the disease. But a new gene-editing technology could change your fate. It could ensure that your baby is — and remains — healthy. … What do you do? Now, imagine it's not a rare genetic disorder, but general illness, or eye color, or cognitive ability, or athleticism. Do you opt into this new world of genetically edited humans? … Right now, science doesn't give you that choice. But huge advancements in CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats] technology are making human gene editing a reality.

If you, like me, are not an expert on the subject of gene editing, its history, and practice, the National Institute for Health offers  a primer. Salvo also has an excellent piece on the topic by Heather Zeiger.   

I watched the Feb. 17 event live, my first time to view an IQ2US debate. The organization has been hosting these debates since 2006 (the current count is 185), but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last couple of years have featured online rather than in-person events. The format followed a standard debate structure, with two teams taking turns speaking for and against the motion to use gene editing. Audience members were invited to vote on the motion — once before the debate and once after it — so that IQ2US can track the debate’s effect, if any. After the live event, a video of the discussion was posted on the IQ2US website, along with a separate round of pre- and post-viewing voting for those who watched the debate later.

Voices For and Against

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the people behind the Human Genome Project, was the first to speak for the motion. He acknowledged that there are perils to using gene editing technology to “make better babies” but argued that “better” means “healthier,” a goal that he considers worth the risk. Church said the proper response to risk is not to ban the practice outright but to regulate it in the same way that other risky technologies, such as automobiles, are regulated.

Marcy Darnovsky, whose biography describes her as “an organizer and advocate in a range of environmental and progressive political movements,” spoke against the motion, describing germline gene editing, in particular, as “wildly unsafe.” (Germline cells are reproductive cells that pass on genetic information to future generations.) Darnovsky’s primary objection, however, was based in concerns not about safety, but about social justice. She believes the likelihood that gene editing technology would not be equitably applied makes it inherently unfair.

Amy Webb, professor of strategic foresight at New York University's Stern School of Business, spoke for the motion, arguing that the natural world is “riddled with errors” and that gene editing allows human beings the prospect of correcting those errors. In fact, said Webb, human beings are morally obliged to do so if they can. “The survival of our species requires intervention,” said Webb, adding that worries about the risks of gene editing technology are mere “catastrophizing,” with no evidence to back them up.

Franḉoise Baylis, 2017 winner of the Canadian Bioethics Society Lifetime Achievement Award, spoke against the motion, saying that science should be used “to build a better world for all,” not to improve the lives of a select few. Baylis said that there is no right to biological children, arguing that those who fear passing on undesirable traits can pursue other options, such as sperm/egg donors. Reproductive rights, Baylis said, are about “the right of women to control their bodies,” not the right of people to have children.  

Humanistic Arguments, All

As I watched the debate, I was struck by two things: first, how utterly misguided the entire exercise was without any acknowledgment of the existence of God; and second, how none of the speakers seemed to grasp the glaring holes in their own arguments.

Regarding the first point, I am at a loss to know how one can approach a subject such as this one without first agreeing on some basic premises about the source and nature of life. Without such agreement, there is little hope of a meaningful conversation. I suppose that is why it was clear from the outset that both sides of this debate represented a secular, progressive, humanistic world view that had no place for the concept of a Creator who might have something to say about all of this. So, while IQ2US bills itself as a “forum for balanced and intelligent debate” that promotes “intellectual and viewpoint diversity,” there was a marked lack of diversity in this debate on the subject of Who is the ultimate arbiter of life. Clearly, the one and only answer to that question among all the participants was humanity. As a result, while I agreed with the conclusion of the team who spoke against the motion, I rejected their reasoning because it was not founded in a proper understanding of humanity’s place in creation.   

Regarding the second point, for four individuals so esteemed in their respective fields, it was remarkable how little they seemed to perceive the illogic in their own presentations. In her remarks in favor of the motion, Webb claimed that any argument against gene editing that is based on concerns about its associated risks fails because there is no evidence that it is dangerous. The comeback to that, of course, is that there is little evidence of its dangers because there is little evidence about it, period. Saying that we can move full speed ahead on an experimental technology because we don’t have proof of its harmfulness is akin to saying we can throw someone in the deep end of the pool because we don’t know for sure that he can’t swim.

In their arguments against the motion, both Baylis and Darnovsky essentially offered sanctity-of-life arguments without seeming to realize they had done so. Darnovsky failed to grasp the parallel between those of lower socioeconomic status (for whom she advocates) and other marginalized groups (such as the estimated one-million-plus frozen embryos that now live in limbo in this country as a result of in vitro fertilization). For her part, Baylis questioned the definition of “better” human beings with a personal story of caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Her argument is one that I and many of my fellow Christians have made: that weakness does not lower the value of life and that, in fact, the opportunity to care for the weak can lead to a deeper appreciation for all life. How sadly ironic, then, is her blindness to the similarity between the inherent worth and beauty of an Alzheimer’s patient and that of a vulnerable child in the womb who is equally in need of protection. The cognitive dissonance is, as the saying goes, deafening.  

Still, A Debate Worth Having

Among both the live audience and those who watched the debate later, the voting reflected a decrease, pre- to post-debate, in undecided votes and a measurable shift toward the “against” position. Among pre-debate live viewers, 43% voted “against” the motion, 40% voted “for,” and 16% were undecided. Post-debate, the “against” vote increased to 51% while the “for” vote remained the same.  

Among non-live viewers, 24% initially voted “against,” 52% “for” and 23% “undecided.” At this writing, post-debate, the “against” vote has increased by 12 percentage points and the “for” vote by five percentage points. So even though the “for” vote still exceeds the “against” vote, IQ2US considers the swing to be a win for the “against” side.  

The goal of IQ2US is a laudable one, and while this debate did not include a voice that I consider representative of my own perspective, I did learn a few things and am inclined to listen to more debates in the future. The country could certainly benefit from an increase in more thoughtful, less rancorous discourse. And while I found the arguments presented on both sides of this discussion to be flawed, the voting outcome reflects movement in the right direction.  

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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