Supertots And Frankenkids

On the Rights of Those Not Yet Designed

"These issues are already on the table. We're going to have to expand the definition of man," she says. The pithiest conclusion to the dilemma she cites came from an exchange between her students: "If it walks like a man, quacks like a man, and photosynthesizes like a man, then it's a man."

It may sound like science fiction, but biotech's progress continues to defy prediction. The HIV genome took years to sequence; SARS was done in weeks. Human genetic enhancement is drawing closer—we've already identified more than a thousand genetic markers for outcomes like Down's syndrome.

The day is approaching when wealthy parents can pay to have markers tweaked or added to bolster qualities like intelligence and athleticism. But the rights of such unusual progeny are being curtailed before the people even exist. The situation is one the X-Men, conceived as a comic-book response to the civil rights movement in 1963 and returning to movie theaters on May 2 with a plot centered on a repressive Mutant Registration Act, could easily appreciate. "Born with strange powers, the mutants known as the X-Men use their awesome abilities to protect a world that hates and fears them!" reads their Marvel Comics tagline. In the end, the X-Men were sold out by that very company. It was Marvel subsidiary Toy Biz that persuaded Judge Barzilay of the heroes' "other than human" status so it could reap reimbursements on taxes paid to import action figures from China—the levy was higher on dolls, which depict humans, than on other toys.

illustration: Glynis Sweeny

That might seem a trivial and unlikely basis for the question of what makes us human, but as Andrews notes, "Science looks forward, law looks backward. Computer cases rest on what happened with books, and space shuttle cases will look back to what was decided for horses and buggies."

The personal decisions that would accompany genetic enhancement are frightening. How would you feel about your first child when the second one comes bundled with upgrades? Could the younger sibling ever enjoy a sense of real achievement, or would the kid forever wonder if that three-minute mile had been written in before birth? "I suppose if I were the only one enhanced, I'd feel a bit of a cheat," Watson admits. Where do you draw the line between risks and rewards? Changing the germ line—those genes that will be passed onto future generations—must be done ahead of the fetus's development, and so carries tremendous potential for cascades of disaster. Somatic therapies—delivering genes to a living person—have loosed cancers in test subjects.

Even in best-case scenarios, the questions are endless. Will genetically enhanced people be held back by society, just as gifted students are now woefully underserved? Should you have to pay insurance premiums inflated by others whose parents lacked the foresight to eliminate disease genes? How much privacy protection should such people have? Pity the presidential candidate who must reveal that she's been enhanced by a lab instead of a blue-blood pedigree.

Why should the DNA-boosted have to follow our usual strictures at all? "The minimum time you must invest to do a Ph.D. these days is something like three years," says Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. "But why force someone to do it in three years when it can be done in three months?" Need a person with faster reaction times be stuck driving 55 miles per hour?

Social pressure may end up curbing wild-eyed genetic hubris, says Princeton molecular biology professor Lee Silver. "Parents want kids like themselves, except maybe a little smarter," he says. "Not beyond the curve, but on the leading edge of the curve. I think this is all going to happen very slowly, step by step. That's much more insidious, of course."

The means to achieve GM babies are spreading, and if the practice ever catches on, it'll be because parents are trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Douglas Osheroff, a Nobelist for physics, opposes genetic enhancement on principle. Instead of molecular manipulation, he favors providing a stimulating environment, which as a Stanford professor, he could provide in spades. But even he concedes, "If it appeared that [my children] would not be competitive unless they were engineered, I suppose I would seriously consider this process."

So once created, what kind of reception would those kids get? Most visions of genetic engineering—Gattaca, Brave New World—focus on the danger of having a genetic über-class. These dystopian renderings overlook one crucial fact: Time and again, mob rule has eliminated elites, real or perceived. "This could be another way privilege is concentrated and the underclass will be angry," Watson says. "The underclass has always been angry, sometimes with good reason."

The raw meritocracy of the Olympics will segregate against GM humans, even an athlete with a single GM grandparent, according to World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound. "They can go and compete with people who've had genetic enhancements," he says. But the Olympics have always been a proving ground for genetics. Jesse Owens demolished Nazi claims of a superior race in the Berlin games of 1936. And as Silver notes, bicyclist Lance Armstrong has a heart 33 percent larger than average. "That's not just training," the biologist says. "That's genetics."

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