Julia Lindpaintner
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Designer Babies

Designer Babies & the Pro-Choice Movement

Last December, I read this article by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow for Dissent Magazine, and it hit me like a ton of bricks: I should have done my thesis on designer babies. 

In her article Tuhus-Dubrow lays out the ways in which the arguments made by pro-choice activists and neo-eugenicists are shockingly similar. They both appeal to the mother's right to have control over her body and family. She argues that the pro-choice movement will need to figure out how to differentiate its argument if it wishes to set itself apart and defend its values from being lumped in with the even more controversial and divisive ideas of the neo-eugenics movement. 

I came across this article in the course of my research for my MFA Thesis for the Products of Design at SVA, in which I explored the role civic engagement can play in criminal justice reform. I was watching one of the lectures of Michael Sandel's popular Harvard course "Justice," in which he described a case where a surrogate changed her mind about wanting to give away the baby once it was born. Despite having signed a contract, the court ruled that she should not be held to the agreement since she could not have known then what she now knew having given birth. In this discussion of ethics, I began to think more about how complicated this area is. When a woman's unique biological ability to conceive human life and give birth is in question, there are such strong feelings and opinions. And how bizarre that we are not allowed to sell our children once they're born, but surrogacy contracts allow this purchase to take place pre-birth. 

I am strongly pro-choice, but I appreciate the deep complexity of the issue. With biotechnological innovation and the growing ability to intervene at the molecular level, it does not seem far-fetched to imagine a world in which human DNA becomes a design material. As Tuhus-Dubrow contends: 

In vitro fertilization (IVF) does not merely help the infertile to procreate; increasingly, it allows parents to determine the genetic makeup of their offspring. Initially, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) targeted severe childhood diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia. Now, more parents use it to screen out genes for late-onset, treatable diseases, such as colon cancer; sex selection is also popular. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, 42 percent of 137 IVF-PGD clinics allowed parents to select for gender. Scientists predict that parents will be able to choose such characteristics as blue eyes or curly hair. Less certain, but plausible, is that scientists will be able to identify genes for more complex traits, such as intelligence and homosexuality. Genetic engineering, which will enable not merely the selection but the insertion of desired genes, is on the horizon. In the United States, this rapidly advancing technology is unchecked by any regulatory mechanism.

I can imagine a world in which surrogates are obsolete because people wear comfortable, ergonomic, synthetic "exo-wombs." And with technology comes industry—how long before you are designing your baby on an app, adjusting eye and hair color much in the way you used to build your Sims?

I foresee both the social, political, and economic impacts of these developments, and an opportunity for critical design to provoke conversations around our future today. So, this is my side project. I will approach it in much the same way as my thesis work, albeit on a somewhat different calendar and at a slightly slower pace. I plan to keep a record of my research, work, and thoughts on the topic here.