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You Can't Ban Embryo Selection Because it's Unfair
Embryo selection for polygenic traits will exacerbate inequalities, but banning the practice is profoundly unjust.
Embryo selection is the process of choosing embryos for implantation during in vitro fertilization (IVF). Recent advances in polygenic testing have allowed for selection for complex traits such as health and intelligence, granting parents the ability to potentially give their children healthier and happier lives.
This procedure faces a great deal of scrutiny. A conservative might oppose embryo selection on the grounds that it is unnatural in addition to the argument that discarding embryos is akin to killing people. A progressive might raise concerns of inequality when discussing embryo selection because families that are wealthier will be able to afford the costs of doing embryo selection. Since this practice confers a major advantage in terms of life success, the wealthy will be able to further increase their high level of economic and social welfare.
Despite increasing inequality, embryo selection that genetically enhances one baby does not harm another. Health and intelligence aren't zero-sum games. Enhanced babies will likely grow up to not only live a better life but contribute more to the economy and society, improving the lives of the unenhanced as well.
Since embryo selection is a new technology, people are likely more critical than they would be of an established technology even if the established technology causes similar inequalities. We know that in parts of the developing world, people do not have access to vaccines. Would it be desirable to prevent people in the developed world from accessing vaccines in order to avoid exacerbating inequality?
I don’t think the type of equality where we make people worse off intentionally is good. If we were in a neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital with two babies and we suspected only one was going to die, would we be happy to receive news from the doctors that both were going to die?
Coercively preventing people from accessing technology that can make them healthier is morally comparable to coercively making people less healthy. If enhancement through embryo selection is made illegal, how could we resolve the problem of parents who violate the law? Imagine we punish the parents, but the child continues to exist. Inequality persists. Would it be ethical for the government to feed the child pills that harmed him or her to reach a normal level of desirable traits? That's clearly wrong, but how is it much different from preventing the enhancement in the first place?
You can’t really escape unfairness even with banning embryo selection. The alternative to geneticists selecting embryos is biological randomness selecting embryos. Imagine a woman is doing IVF and has six embryos. Would it be better for her to pick the healthiest embryo or be better to roll a die to choose? If the die ended up on the healthiest embryo, in what way is that more fair than if it was merely selected intentionally?
Even if we accept some coherent criteria of fairness, the argument for banning embryo selection on account of unfairness is weak. Things are already inequitable and unfair. All behavioral traits, whether pro-social or anti-social, are to some degree heritable. Diseases like cancer and heart disease are also heritable.
We live in a profoundly unfair world where some are born healthier, more intelligent and more beautiful. Not only does the unfairness exist, it persists across generations. The privileged give birth to more privileged. Gregory Clark's The Son Also Rises details his research which uses analysis of surnames to measure the persistence of social status across time throughout the world. Clark concludes that social status persists largely for genetic reasons.
If progressives want to create an equal playing field at the time of birth, they would need to have embryo selection as a tool in their arsenal rather than outright banning it. Progressives could prohibit embryo selection for the genetically privileged — those who are naturally healthy, intelligent, beautiful and so forth. It would be even more effective to mandate that parents with high polygenic scores for desirable traits select embryos with the lowest polygenic scores for those traits. Progressives would also want to subsidize, or even mandate, embryo selection for those with the lowest polygenic scores.
A progressive concerned about inequality may object that despite it being more fair, forcing someone to undergo a procedure to make their child worse off is repugnant. I would be in agreement, but I also believe forcibly preventing parents from making their children better off is at minimum morally comparable to forcing parents to make their child worse off. Once again, it is akin to preventing a mother from vaccinating her child until the whole world has access to vaccines.
Fairness shouldn't be a concern in cases when we need to coercively bring people down to have it. When we are dealing with zero-sum games, fairness is a more desirable trait. If a racer started one second earlier than the others, deducting one second from his time seems fair and just. The goal of the race is to reward the person who is fastest. Starting early hurts the other runners’ chances of winning.
Health isn't like a race. We shouldn’t want to deduct years off a baby’s potential life at the time of birth to level the playing field. If the whole world was a little bit healthier except for me, I think my life would be better. I would be happy to see my loved ones, friends and even strangers live a little bit better healthier lives despite the fact that I wouldn’t.
I will not get to experience the advantage of embryo selection because I am already born. However, I will be happy to see more babies like Aurea Smigrodzki coming into existence despite the fact that she might be healthier than me. For those who want fairness, perhaps they should hope the procedure did not work and Aurea isn't healthier because of it.
Despite the ideological commitment to equality, I think that ultimately progressives will embryo select in order to provide their children with advantages in life. The hope for a better future for one’s child is too strong. The love that parents have for their children will drive inequality, but it will also allow for progress and more human flourishing.
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