Objection: Imposes parental control

READ MORE: Parents impose their preferences and ideas of perfection that distort the lifetime identity of a new person who never consented.

Fast-developing technologies and therapies in the genetic sciences require that our society face some crucial moral questions about parental rights in genetic engineering of human embryos:

  1. Do parents have a moral right to approve editing of a human embryo’s DNA when genetic tests indicate that the new human being will likely experience a genetic “disease”, “defect”, abnormality, or disability?
  2. Do parents have a moral right to direct scientists to edit a human embryo’s DNA in order to enhance certain characteristics or capabilities of their child throughout his or her life?
  3. Does the human embryo, or the future born child, have significant rights that would be violated by their parents’ choice to genetically edit the child?

Published surveys tell us that most Americans would favor the kind of genetic editing described in the first question but show great discomfort over enhancing embryos without a medical, corrective purpose.

The questions I have presented here, however, concern more than just the morality or desirability of the genetic therapies, but also whether parental rights in genetic engineering actually have a moral foundation.

We live in a society hyper-focused on defining the individual rights of all types of people, including citizens and illegal immigrants, sexual and gender categories, Christians and atheists, etc. The rights of parents and children – in competition with each other or against government intrusion – have been debated for some time, with no end in sight.

While most people will probably answer the above questions with intuitive certainty, the moral issues involved are complex.

Ronald Green (2007) offers one of the most enthusiastic arguments in favor of the rights of parents. “Parental love almost always prevails” because they are the primary guardians and “gardeners” of their children’s development. Parents should therefore enjoy extensive freedom in using genetic editing to influence the way that children grow throughout life. The genetic editing can be for the sake of the child, but it can also be for the dreams and preferences of the parents. Pursuing the parents’ preferences, however, should not go too far in overriding the interests of the child, according to the way most people would define those interests.

Green reflects a popular sentiment that parents have the best idea of what is good for their children. Nearly all Americans agree that, “in general, parents have the constitutional right to make decisions for their children without government interference unless there is proof of abuse or neglect.” (2010 Zogby Poll, cited at ParentalRights.org).

The assumption of parental rights organizations and the public are that parents love their children. This assumption, however, is exaggerated. Consider that, in the U.S., more than 3.6 million referrals regarding suspected child abuse are made to child protection agencies every year, involving more than 6.6 million children (Children’s Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services, January 25, 2016). These are just the reported cases, which are likely a fraction of total abuse.

Nicholas Agar (2004) takes a different approach, again favoring the rights of parents to genetically edit their children, but based primarily on the right and obligation of parents to enhance a child’s ability to choose and pursue a broad array of possible “life plans”. Genetic editing and genetic enhancement of children will supposedly expand the possibilities for children to build the life they choose. Agar’s emphasis in defining such opportunities is on the “capabilities” of the children.

It is rarely the case, however, that childhood dreams – or even the plans and dreams of young adults – have much to do with the actual paths taken throughout life. Life is extremely unpredictable; we encounter hundreds of influences every day that help to shape what happens tomorrow, let alone in the distant future.

Parents can’t possibly predict how editing the DNA of their child will affect their child’s future. Changing certain characteristics of a child might actually cut off possibilities that the child and future adult may have enjoyed. Enhancing the capabilities of a child eliminates the opportunities for that person to experience life as a normal, average, less capable, or even “disabled” human being. Experience of life without genetic enhancement is not necessarily an unhappy lot, for challenges and even suffering are opportunities for growth and spiritual joy.

Emphasis on the capabilities of children ignores much of the beauty of human nature. Overcoming challenges and succeeding in competition with others can be satisfying in a way, but a person who lives with an identity that is overly tied to their capabilities may experience the excruciating illness of perfectionism or miss out on the joys of relationships, peaceful acceptance, spiritual surrender and fulfillment, appreciation of beauty, etc.

As the blogger Eric Barker (Barking Up the Wrong Tree) shares, “people who achieved their extrinsic [achievement based] goals didn’t experience any increase in day-to-day happiness—none. They spent a huge amount of energy chasing these goals, but when they fulfilled them, they felt the same as they had at the start….” (Jonathan Hari, Lost Connections).

As Barker says it: “For the past few decades we’ve lived under the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your noggin. And while that is true for some people, more and more research is showing that our dissatisfaction may be due less to a broken brain and more to a broken life.”

The desire of parents to manufacture their children by editing their genes will likely interfere with the parent-child relationship that human beings have come to cherish. Parents’ attempts to “master the mystery of birth diminishes the designing parent and corrupts parenting as a social practice governed by norms of unconditional love” (Michael Sandel, 2007).

This unconditional love thrives when parents perceive their children as unique, special, and “given” to them by a higher power (or even by chance). Unfortunately, the economic needs of our society and employers pressure us to give priority to the supposed usefulness and productivity of each person. Disability rights advocates, however, show us that unconditional love flourishes between parents and children who are significantly less capable in some common human activities (for example, Eva Kittay 2000, David Wasserman and Adrienne Asch 2013).

We know that the joys of human nature are not defined by the usefulness of a person. Will parents foolishly choose to edit the DNA of their children and allow the one-dimensional pressures of society to distort the human nature of both children and parents?

It is almost inevitable that any parent will, to some extent, meet their own psychological needs in shaping their relationship with their child. Parents fulfill their yearning for love by raising a child that, at least in his or her early stages, directs their entire focus on their parents. Parents may fulfill dreams, values, and incomplete projects through the related success of their children.

With parental rights in genetic engineering, however, the power of a parent to shape their children in order to fulfill the parents’ own needs may end up distorting the child’s human nature in a harmful manner. As Leon Kass (2003), Michael Sandel (2007), and many others have shown, the temptations of genetic editing are likely to cause parents to be domineering and too narrowly focused in choosing how to alter the characteristics of their child. Natural limits on the powers of parents, however, generate a mysteriously ideal wisdom in balancing child autonomy with parental guidance.

Finally, we must consider the rights of the child to live without genetic editing, especially when the editing is intended to enhance characteristics beyond medical or therapeutic purposes. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas asks whether the embryonic child, if capable of expressing his or her interests, would consent to being genetically edited.

For Habermas, it is impossible to assume with certainty that a child would not prefer to live as a unique, non-manipulated, and created individual rather than as a partly “made” person. Any child has a right to the freedom and self-responsibility to define their own identity. Since the embryonic child does not have the opportunity to express consent, most genetic editing or enhancement of the child is a severe violation by the parent of the human rights of the child.      

In conclusion, any respect for the human nature of a child requires placing a high value on the child’s future opportunities to define their identity. Such an identity, in turn, is not a simple description of the characteristics of a person, but a winding history of challenges and successes, doubt and spiritual fulfillment, suffering and gratitude, loss and gain, acceptance and difference, rejection and love, ugliness and beauty, and work and play.

Genetic editing and its attraction are all about our drive to control. While parents rightly see their children as, to some extent, products of the parents’ choices and efforts, children are conceived with a created human nature that is oriented toward joy.

This human nature is precious. Parental rights in genetic engineering are a much lower priority.

“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”
~ Stacia Tauscher