Dreadfully Ever After Sale

Original Essays



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Jill Owens: IMG David Mitchell: The Powells.com Interview

David MitchellDavid Mitchell's newest mind-bending, time-skipping novel may be his most accomplished work yet. Written in six sections, one per decade, The Bone... Continue »
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Original Essays | September 30, 2014

Benjamin Parzybok: IMG A Brief History of Video Games Played by Mayors, Presidents, and Emperors

Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost... Continue »
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Original Essays

Designer Children, Designing Parents

by Michael J. Sandel
A few years ago, an ad appeared in The Harvard Crimson seeking an egg donor. Not any egg would do. The donor had to be five-feet, ten inches tall, athletic, without major family medical problems, and to have a combined SAT score of 1400 or above. In exchange for an egg from a donor meeting this description, the ad offered payment of $50,000.

Perhaps the parents who offered the hefty sum for a premium egg simply wanted a child who resembled them. Or perhaps they were hoping to trade up, trying for a child who would be taller or smarter than they. Whatever the case, their extraordinary offer raises a hard moral question: Isn't there something troubling about parents ordering up a child with certain genetic traits?

The $50,000 designer egg is not the only case of prospective parents trying to give their child a genetic edge. Commercial sperm banks offer donor catalogs specifying the height, weight, hair color, eye color, ethnic origin, and college major of the donors. California Cryobank, one of the world's leading sperm banks, has offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between Harvard and MIT, and in Palo Alto, California, near Stanford. It advertises for donors in the Crimson and other college newspapers (compensation up to $900 per month), and accepts only 1-2 per cent of the donors who apply. Cryobank's marketing materials play up the prestigious source of its sperm.

Of course, neither designer eggs nor Ivy League sperm guarantee that the child who results will land a place in the freshman class. (Would he or she qualify for consideration as a "legacy" admit?) But recent advances in biotechnology are giving parents new ways of engineering the genetic traits of their children.

It is now possible, for example, to choose whether to have a boy or a girl. The same embryo screening technique that allows parents to screen for certain genetic diseases can also be used to choose the sex of a child. For a fee of $18,480, a for-profit fertility clinic in Los Angeles advertises "sex selection with 99.9% guarantee of chosen gender." Another clinic, in Fairfax, Virginia, offers a sperm-sorting technique that makes it possible to choose the sex of your child before it is conceived. It uses a device to separate X- and Y-bearing sperm according to their weight. The clinic licensed the trademarked process (quaintly called MicroSort) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had developed it for breeding cattle.

One objection to sex selection is that it can be an instrument of sex discrimination, typically against girls, as illustrated by the chilling sex ratios in parts of Asia. China now has 119 boys for every 100 girls; in parts of India, boys outnumber girls by a ratio of 140 to 100. Some speculate that societies with substantially more men than women will be less stable, more violent, more prone to crime or war than societies with normal distributions. The sperm-sorting company has a clever way of fending off such worries. It offers MicroSort only to couples who want to choose the sex of their child for purposes of family balancing. Those with more sons than daughters can choose a girl, and vice versa. But customers may not use the technology to stock up on children of the same sex, or even to choose the sex of their first-born child.

The case of MicroSort helps isolate the moral question: Imagine that sperm-sorting technologies were employed in a society that did not favor boys over girls, and that wound up with a balanced sex ratio. Would sex selection under those conditions be unobjectionable? What if it became possible to select not only for sex but also for height, eye color, and skin color? What about sexual orientation, IQ, musical ability, and athletic prowess?

Even if we could engineer the genetic traits of our children without medical risk, and without skewing the sex ratio, it would be morally troubling. The reason is that the quest for designer children is at odds with a norm that is central to parenting—the ideal of unconditional love. This ideal requires that we accept certain limits on our impulse to mastery and control.

To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design or products of our will or instruments of our ambition. Parental love is not contingent on the talents and attributes the child happens to have. We choose our friends and spouses at least partly on the basis of qualities we find attractive. But we do not choose our children. Their qualities are unpredictable, and even the most conscientious parents cannot be held wholly responsible for the kind of child they have. That is why parenthood, more than other human relationships, teaches what theologian William F. May calls an "openness to the unbidden."

The deepest problem with the quest for designer children lies in the hubris of the designing parents — in their unwillingness to accept the unpredictability of their child. Even if this disposition does not make parents tyrants to their children, it disfigures the relation of parent and child and deprives the parent of the humility and enlarged human sympathies that an "openness to the unbidden" can cultivate.

Some argue that improving children through genetic engineering is really no different than the heavily managed, high-pressure child rearing practices that have become common these days — the crazed competition for admission to elite nursery schools, soccer practice from dawn till dusk, SAT prep courses, summers devoted to an endless array of resume-burnishing good deeds. But this similarity does not vindicate genetic engineering. To the contrary, it highlights a problem with the trend toward hyper-parenting. We are all too familiar with the over-wrought parents who populate the sidelines of hockey rinks and Little League diamonds across the land, and with the "helicopter parents" who hover over their children from pre-school to college in a frenzied attempt to manage their academic careers.

Those who argue that bioengineering is similar in spirit to other ways ambitious parents shape and mold their children have a point. But this similarity does not give us reason to embrace the genetic manipulation of children. Instead, it gives us reason to question the low tech, high-pressure child-rearing practices we commonly accept. The hyper-parenting familiar in our time represents the same anxious excess of mastery and control that leads logically to the quest for designer kids.

In a social world that prizes mastery and control, parenthood is a school for humility. That we care deeply about our children, and yet cannot choose the kind we want, teaches parents to be open to the unbidden. Such openness is a disposition worth affirming, not only within families, but in the wider world as well. It invites us to abide the unexpected, to live with dissonance, to reign in the impulse to control. spacer

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