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Picking Traits of Our ChildrenPoses Some Thorny Questions

Posted Sep 13 2008 1:02am

Would you willingly choose to have a dwarf or deaf child instead of a “normal” one? Apparently, some parents are doing just that, writes Dr. Darshak Sanghavi in a New York Times essay.

Notice I put quotes around the word “normal.” Why? To some dwarfs and deaf people, their traits are just that, normal. After all, these two traits can be traced deep into recorded human history.

But while the Times’ essay focuses on the moral right or wrong of favoring or choosing these traits, I have a different question. As our societies increasingly use materials that permanently damage human DNA and create new traits, should we allow them to propagate into the human genome? Should we stop them? Should we pick and choose?

Some of these traits will take care of themselves: the very traits may damage reproductive ability or kill at a young age. Some of these traits even may be deemed beneficial.

But many may fall somewhere in the middle. Take this hypothetical: Let’s say industrial hormones that contaminate our drinking water permanently alters human DNA in some people to create androgynous children.

These children are healthy in every way, but in this scenario each has male and female genitalia. Now this trait occurs occasionally in nature, but in this case we’re looking at a permanent, artificial cause. Mutation before they have children? Or because the trait is benign – at least biologically – should they be free to let the genetic mutation swim out into the gene pool?

I think most people will reflexively pick their respective sides. But I don’t see clear-cut answers here. How does society determine what is a good trait and what is a bad one? Mutations have been occurring throughout the evolutionary process.

The dwarfs mentioned in the Times essay, prefer short stature. They don’t care how they came by it. It may be that our hypothetical androgynes don’t care how they became that way either.

Should we?

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