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Road to Designer Babies: Of Patents and Pandora's Box

Remember the story of Pandora’s Box? Pandora, according to Greek poet Hesiod, was the first woman on earth. She was given beauty by Aphrodite, speech by Hermes, and a box by Zeus, along with the warning to never  open it. Well, as we all know, curiosity got the best of Pandora, who opened the box and all the evils and diseases of life flew out, afflicting mankind until this day. Only Hope remained.

This story, of course, is an echo of what actually happened with Adam and Eve as described in the Genesis account. The Serpent tempted Eve to disobey the Lord, take the forbidden fruit, and with Adam, plunge the human race into a terrible fall from grace. Their desire for forbidden knowledge — the knowledge of good and evil—shows that not all knowledge is a good thing.

But the idea that all knowledge is a good and useful thing is very often assumed in science, particularly in the exploding field of genetic engineering. While God has given us the ability to understand His good world with such tools as science and mathematics, it does not follow that just because we can do something we should do it.

Earlier this month on BreakPoint, Eric Metaxas told us about a molecular biologist at Kyoto University who used the skin cells of a mouse to create “primordial germ cells.” He matured these cells into eggs, fertilized them, and implanted them into a female mouse, which then gave birth to live young. In other words, he made it possible to create life by bypassing normal reproductive channels — and many infertile as well as homosexual couples began asking about whether the technique could enable them to have children, too.

Eric rightly told us that what ultimately sets us apart from the rodents in Hayashi’s laboratory is not our technology or power to cheat nature. It’s our ability to say ‘no’ to things we want to do, but shouldn’t do.”

Now we’ll see if 23andMe, a California genomics company, can just say “no.” They just announced a patent for a technology that would allow parents to choose or suppress genetic traits in their children; traits such as “height, eye color, muscle development, personality characteristics, and risks of developing age-related macular degeneration or certain types of cancer.” The patent application even lists the following choices: “I prefer a child with”: “longest expected life span” or “least expected life cost of health care.” It's not foolproof, but would be a major step toward so-called "designer babies."

Now the question is whether 23andMe will keep the lid of this Pandora’s Box firmly closed.

A company spokeswoman said, “When we originally introduced the tool and filed the patent, there was some thinking the feature could have applications for fertility clinics. But we’ve never pursued the idea, and have no plans to do so.”

Of course, when it comes to biotechnology, plans often change. What becomes thinkable then becomes possible, then becomes profitable, and then becomes available. As a culture we've already embraced the selective elimination of unborn children with undesirable traits. It's only a small step enabled by our scientific arrogance and narcissism to embrace the selective production of children with desirable traits.

But anything that turns children into products results in putting a price tag on the priceless, which always and only cheapens human value.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Publication date: October 22, 2013

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