“Gattaca” and the ethics of genetic selection


Through David K. Johnson, Ph.D., the college king

The topic of reproductive choice sparks discussion about the freedom parents should have over the genetic makeup of their babies. It seems likely that we will soon have the ability to choose the particular attributes of a child. But should parents be able to do this: select aesthetic physical attributes, like eye and hair color, or things like intelligence and strength? This possibility raises a host of philosophical questions and consequences to consider which are explored in the film. Gattaca.

Genetic manipulation to get babies made to measure is a step that poses enormous moral problems. (Image: Pan Andrii / Shutterstock)

The film Gattaca takes place in a world where genetic manipulation is common. When parents decide to have children, they often do so with the help of geneticists. Diseases are eliminated, the best attributes of parents are selected. You can even conceive of a baby with a specific goal in mind: to be a better swimmer or to be an astronaut. Children produced in this way are called “able-bodied”.

Some parents, however, have chosen to reproduce naturally, leaving their child’s genetic code to be random. Society is arranged so that these “invalids” are condemned to menial work. Only able-bodied people have access to professional employment and background checks are constantly carried out.

This is a transcript of the video series Sci-Phi: science fiction as philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Vincent: L’Invalide in Gattaca

The story of Gattaca follows Vincent, an “invalid” working as a janitor at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. At birth, his genetic code made him very susceptible to many disorders, and he has a life expectancy of only 30.2 years. Yet he dreams of being an astronaut.

He uses the genetic material of an able-bodied named Jerome to pass himself off as an able-bodied and, through his own efforts, he obtains a position as a navigator during a mission to Saturn’s Titan moon. The deception is almost exposed; but the background checker ends up looking the other way and the movie ends with Vincent flying off on his mission to Titan.

The moral of the story, that you shouldn’t let other people’s expectations determine what you think you can do, seems correct. But, given that in Gattaca, it’s genetics that sets the limits, it’s hard to take morality seriously. It’s not that genetic determinism – which suggests that your genetic makeup determines everything about you – is right; but genes set limits. If Vincent has a congenital heart defect, he will die on his way to Titan and no hard work and no determination will change that fact.

Learn more about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Natural or unnatural?

An illustration of in vitro fertilization.
Even though genetic selection – to a limited extent – is used as part of in vitro fertilization, but is not considered immoral. (Image: Explode / Shutterstock)

Always, Gattaca raises serious concerns about the development of genetic engineering technology that would allow babies to be conceived. A common concern is that creating designer babies is immoral because it is unnatural. But such arguments are fallaciously based on what the philosopher Daniel Maguire calls the fallacy of biologism: “the fallacious effort to wrest a moral mandate from raw biological facts.”

Something being natural does not make it moral; being unnatural does not make it immoral.

One possible objection is that bespoke babies would be viewed by their parents as goods rather than people, and would treat them accordingly. But such concerns seem exaggerated.

For example, that parents of children born from in vitro fertilization do not treat them as property. Indeed, studies have shown that, on average, the quality of parenthood in families that use in vitro fertilization is actually better than those that reproduce “naturally”. And that makes sense. No family that seeks in vitro fertilization ends up with an unwanted child.

Choice and unnatural selection

A legitimate concern is expressed by Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society in California. If the design is too specific, the freedom of the child could be restricted. In Gattaca, Jerome was “designed” to be the best swimmer in the world, and his failure caused him to throw himself in front of a car. But that wouldn’t be a reason to ban designer babies. After all, some parents are already doing this, requiring their child to become a doctor or play their favorite sport.

Once such practices become mainstream, and therefore our evolution as a species is dictated by what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation, a new species would emerge. But that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. If the genetic line of humans had just ended, that would be sad. But if that leads to the birth of smarter, less violent, more enduring, and more capable humans, it’s something to celebrate.

Learn more about science fiction and the real world.

An unfair world

More worrying are the short-term effects that we see in Gattaca. If the technology wasn’t universally available, you would quickly see society split into two segments – the able-bodied and the disabled, the haves and have-nots – with top jobs and positions reserved for the able-bodied. Worse yet, at the outset, such a technology would only be accessible to the very rich. This would give their children an even greater advantage in society than they already have, dramatically widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

But the thing to consider is this: would you like to live in the company Gattaca represented? As philosopher John Rawls says, one way to determine the fairness of a society is to determine whether you would like to enter it if you didn’t know what person you would be. And it seems that the company represented in Gattaca does not fit the bill. It seems not, because you might as well be valid as invalid. It is certainly not the one who adheres to the principle of justice of John Rawls.

Common questions about Gattaca and the ethics of genetic selection

Q: In the film Gattaca, who are the “able-bodied”?

In Gattaca, some people choose to have children born after consulting geneticists. These children, the “able-bodied”, are genetically selected to be disease-free and may be designed to be the best in certain professions.

Q: In Gattaca, what happens to the so-called “disabled” people?

In Gattaca, people born with a natural mix of genes rather than being genetically modified are called “invalid”. They are doomed to odd jobs. Only able-bodied people have access to professional employment and background checks are constantly carried out.

Q: Why isn’t genetically conceiving babies necessarily an immoral act?

A common concern is that the creation beginner designers is an immoral act because it is “unnatural”. But such arguments are fallaciously based on what the philosopher Daniel Maguire calls the fallacy of biologism: “the fallacious effort to wrest a moral mandate from raw biological facts.” Something being natural does not make it moral; being unnatural does not make it immoral.

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About Leslie Schwartz

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