Sexoids: Better Sex through Genetic Engineering?

By Bacard, Andre | The Humanist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Sexoids: Better Sex through Genetic Engineering?


Bacard, Andre, The Humanist


The omnipresence of sex, as it is woven into the whole texture of our man's or woman's body, is the pattern of all the process of our life.

-Havelock Ellis,

English psychologist

Surgical sex changes. Oral contraception. RU-486 "morning-after" pills. Sperm banks. Test-tube babies. Medical technologies have created a "sexual revolution" in our half of the twentieth century. Some of us are inspired by these changes; others of us are frightened. However we may feel, the revolution is young. Geneticists are setting the stage for new sexual options in the twenty-first century.

Let's contemplate--in the spirit of science fiction--a unique addition to human sexual choice. My idea follows the spirit of Gene Roddenberry, the humanist hero who created "Star Trek" I call my invention the sexoid. I trust you will agree that sexoids are both entertaining and thought-provoking. First, we need a little historical background.

On April 16, 1987, the United States Patent and Trademark Office ruled that animals created in laboratories can be patented. This decision gave you and me the legal right to invent, manufacture, and sell genetically engineered fleas, frogs, or dogs. This ruling also implicitly sets the stage to engineer humans.

In April 1988, Harvard University patented a mouse that was predisposed to cancer. Scientists designed this mouse in order to hasten laboratory experiments involving cancer. This patent set off a firestorm of protests from animal-rights activists, environmentalists, and others, forcing Washington to adopt a moratorium on animal patents. That moratorium has since ended; today, more than 180 applications for animal patents await government action.

What kinds of animals? Genetics firms yearn to design superior farm animals: for example, a superchicken that lays more eggs from less feed. Engineers also want to invent animals that benefit human health. In 1991, DNX corporation, based in Princeton, New Jersey, designed a pig that produces human hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein matter in the red corpuscles of our blood. Other high-tech firms are eager to patent cows that produce the proteins found in human mothers' milk.

Geneticists are sketching even more ambitious animals. These new creatures are called xenografts--animals that might supply hearts, livers, or other organs for human transplants. DNX wants to breed pigs with altered genes that mask the immunological markers of "pigness." This technical innovation would enable surgeons to replace a human's diseased heart with a healthy pig's heart without an adverse reaction from the immune system. Edmund L. Andrews notes in the New York Times that DNX executives hope the first swine-to-human transplants could take place by the late 1990s.

Society, as a whole, is becoming more supportive of genetic engineering. AIDS is a major reason. Many people judge that genetic engineers have the best chance to defeat AIDS. Many scientists, religious leaders, and citizens applaud genetic experiments as long as altered genes might cure human diseases or "improve the human lot" High-tech firms in America, Europe, and Japan are working around the clock to supply genetic products.

When will experiments shift from designer animals--say rodents and poultry--to designer humans? Technology moves so quickly that I dare not predict a date. Today, the biotech industry downplays the direct genetic altering of chimps, apes, or humans. Such genetics remains a political hot potato. However, conditions will change sooner or later.

It is a safe bet that, someday, public pressure will welcome not only superchickens but designer babies. The baby hatcheries in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World sound almost inevitable. Our culture lives and dies for consumerism; will Americans--who demand to select from among 50 automobile models --reject the freedom to choose the hair color, skin tone, and sex of their children? …

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