Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Reprogenetics and the "Parents Have Always Done It" Argument

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Reprogenetics and the "Parents Have Always Done It" Argument

Article excerpt

A common argument in favor of using reprogenetic technologies to enhance children goes like this: parents have always aimed at enhancing their children through upbringing and education, so why not use new tools to accomplish the same goal? But reprogenetics differs significantly from good childrearing and education, in its means, if not its ends.

One way to begin making sense of new and often initially perplexing technologies is to see them as extensions of established technologies and practices. When we take this view of an emerging technology, we regard it primarily as a new way of doing something that we are already doing--a new means to an old end. This basic outlook matters for how we go about reflecting on and reasoning about the technology in question. Generally speaking, it supports a welcoming stance. If we are comfortable with familiar practices--which we often are--and if we see new technologies as mere extensions of these practices, we are quite likely to feel comfortable with the new technologies, too.

More specifically, the outlook just described is likely to inspire a way of reasoning about new technologies that Erik Parens has called the "we've always done it (and everything's been okay)" argument. The argument has the following structure: "If practice X has been morally acceptable in the past, and if practice Y is just like practice X, then practice Y should be morally acceptable now and in the future." (1) Parens criticizes a specific variety of the argument advanced to support human germ line genetic engineering on the grounds that we have already altered the human germ line in several other ways.

In this paper, I shall examine another variety of the "we've always done it" argument often found in the debate about a group of technologies sometimes called "reprogenetics." Broadly understood, reprogenetics encompasses "all interventions involved in the creation, use, manipulation, or storage of gametes and embryos." (2) This includes both in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, a technology that allows doctors to detect certain specifically targeted genetic disorders in IVF embryos. It also includes different methods aimed at manipulating the genetic make-up of these embryos (the germ line interventions that Parens discusses) and cloning.

Some debated reprogenetic technologies are still unavailable, while others are insufficiently developed for safe human use. Those that are currently safe and feasible mostly serve medical purposes. Many reprogenetic technologies--PGD, for instance--are or would be used in order to avoid bringing into existence children with agonizing and debilitating diseases. Reprogenetics enthusiasts defend such uses, but many also believe that it is morally permissible--even sometimes obligatory (3)--to use reprogenetic technologies to choose future children's characteristics unrelated to disease. These commentators claim that we should use reprogenetics to ensure that future children are not just healthy, but also intelligent, handsome, physically fit, and perhaps even morally virtuous.

It is in order to support that position that some variety of the "we've always done it" argument is invoked. One variety might be called the "medicine's always done it" argument. It goes roughly like this: medical knowledge and medical technologies have long been used for other purposes than to cure, prevent, or ameliorate disease. Cosmetic surgery and safe abortions are two examples, and there are many others. These "non-medical" uses have generally been quite acceptable. The argument holds that it is then also acceptable that the knowledge and technologies involved in medical reprogenetics be used for nonmedical purposes. (4) While this is a thought-provoking line of reasoning, I will not examine it further here. I will turn instead to another variety of the "we've always done it" argument that often crops up in this context.

The "Parents Have Always Done It" Argument

Consider the following passage from John Robertson's influential book, Children of Choice:

   A case could be made for prenatal
   enhancement as part of parental
   discretion in rearing offspring. … 
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