Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Depersonalization of Genetic Selection

In the futuristic movie Gattaca, parents are encouraged to “design” their babies through the technology known as embryo screening. The process is portrayed as practically guaranteeing a baby devoid of genetic defects and undesirable characteristics. In concert with Gattaca’s portrayal, most people today envision embryo screening as a means to “weed out” genetic defects and select those embryos with the potential to develop into persons who possess valuable traits.

But to the surprise of many, recent discoveries of couples utilizing the technique to choose offspring with genetic defects is causing quite a stir. A recent survey of U.S. clinics that offer embryo screening suggests that some dwarf and deaf couples may be intentionally choosing to implant embryos that carry the genetic markers for dwarfism and deafness.

Moved by the desire to “reproduce children in their own image,” these couples are fighting for their “right” to have the kind of children capable of sharing in the dwarf and deaf cultures where these sorts of defects are considered “normal.” Critics of the practice say that this “deliberate crippling of children” has taken the “concept of designer babies too far.” While there’s much that can be discussed here, such as whether embryo screening is ethical to begin with, and whether this practice serves the goals of medicine, I am going to focus briefly on an underlying philosophical point that’s often overlooked.

Debates of this kind are indicative of the failure to rightly situate the philosophical source of personal value. Notions of personal value based on a repeatable trait or cluster of attributes fall short in providing stability for grounding human dignity and worth. Rather than relying on replicable traits, personalist philosophers focus on that which is irreducible and unrepeatable in persons—something that can only be grasped from an inward turn.

From an interior perspective, one is able to lay hold upon the personal subjectivity and the incommunicable being with which each person can claim as uniquely his own and not another’s. Introspection of this metaphysical standpoint opens up a depth of being far more capable of establishing the uniqueness of each human person. Notions of personal identity and value based on a shared trait or culture fail to adequately capture what is irreplaceable in the person. Thus, efforts to encourage and support the flourishing of individuals with disabilities can only properly flow from a perspective that values persons as persons, not just for the traits they possess or the cultures of which they are a part. (For further exploration, I recommend John Crosby’s The Selfhood of the Human Person.)