Designing people or bodies used to exist within the realm of science fiction however recent reproductive technologies have made this more and more possible. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) and surrogate pregnancy have revolutionised reproductive technology for infertile couples or couples planning to have children later. In contrast to more Western scientific methods used to battle infertility, the Hmong of Laos choose to call on a shaman who may ask an infertile couple to sacrifice a dog, cat, chicken or sheep (Fadiman, 1997). Hmong women take precautions such as not entering a cave in order to avoid a dab or malevolent spirit who could make them infertile (Fadiman, 1997). Although not adopted by all cultures and societies, reproductive technologies continue to grow in popularity globally whilst being highly subject to debate and media attention. Only last week British scientists were granted permission to genetically modify human embryos for research purposes.
Many fear that this is step closer towards ‘designer babies’, bodies actively and strategically designed by parents who have the financial means to do so. Particular genetic make-up is selected in order to eradicate a defect or ensure a particular gene is present. Making one’s baby aesthetically pleasing, strong, intelligent and immune to disease is now a possibility. How can attributing capital value to such processes be problematic?
Due to the extreme expense, IVF is not available to the masses. If ‘super-babies’ are obtainable for some, we could argue that this could widen the gap between the rich and poor. The offspring of the wealthy will grow up to be more resistant to disease and more educated whilst achieving better careers and economic success. If a ‘perfect’ child and child’s body can be bought, does this affect our notions of a ‘natural’ body? We can see here, that ‘natural’ is highly subjective. Genetic modification allows humans to define what an ‘acceptable’ body is based on scientific opinion as well as shared social and cultural norms. The science fiction film Gattaca is an interesting exploration of a society driven by eugenics where genetic manipulation allows children to possess the best hereditary traits of their parents. In this clip, the protagonist Vincent Freeman is conceived without the use of genetic selection. He possesses a shorter life and several chronic disorders as a consequence:
The spheres of surrogacy, egg and sperm donation are also highly disputed. In 1985, Kim Cotton, Britain’s first surrogate mother, controversially received £6,500 for her baby from a childless couple. Does surrogacy entail the selling of the carrier’s body or the selling of a baby’s life and body? In Inhorn’s study on IVF in the Muslim world, many Muslims have embraced reproductive technologies whilst maintaining their local religious moralities often seeking official Islamic opinions (Inhorn, 2006). Whilst most Sunni Muslims strongly oppose third party gamete donations, some Shi’ite Muslims have become more accepting. Although third-party donations do not involve sexual or adulterous relations, they are considered by most Islamic scholars to be a form of adultery or even prostitution as they threaten ‘the sacred dyad of husband and wife’ (Inhorn 2006:440). The potential for incest among offspring of unknown donors, and the alteration of ‘biological inheritance’ in the ‘mixture of relations’, is also seen as problematic (Inhorn 2006:440). Rather than opposing the capitalist driven commodification of the body, most Muslims in Inhorn’s study are more concerned with maintaining their religious moralities.
Reproductive technologies exist within the wider nature-nurture debate where questions are raised on how far science should interfere with the body, something perceived as inherently ‘natural’. Many fear the physical effects of genetic modification could also affect other genes in the process. Furthermore, struggles in body ‘ownership’ bring to light the complex notion of defining a ‘person’ where individual or partner choices of body development in life planning may affect self construction for the parents and child (Giddens 1991:219).
Birth is often described as the moment where the body becomes a person. At birth, the body is often believed to be ‘perfect’ before the world slowly alters and transforms it. Genetic editing can be seen as a means of reducing such inevitable decay. After birth, the body must be socialised and prepared for the world through rites of passage. One could argue that IVF and genetic manipulation place social, cultural and physical impressions on the body before birth rather than after. These processes could be considered as rites of passage if they are preparing the body for the outside world. Where monetary exchange is involved in conception, one could argue that the body is given a price, even ‘commoditized’, before it can be considered as a fully formed, material and functioning body.
- Fadiman, A. (1997) Chapter 1: Birth from “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures”,Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
- Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self- Identity, p.219,Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
- Inhorn, M. (2006). Making Muslim Babies: IVF and Gamete Donation in Sunni versus Shi’a Islam, p 427-450, Vol.30, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Springer, Germany.
- Image from: https://sites.psu.edu/siowfa15/2015/09/17/a-designer-baby/
- Clip from Gattaca 1997: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kM_dqjgyMmA