Test Tube Babies: Writing Genetic Tailoring
Genetic tinkering is something I play with entirely too much in The Hands We’re Given and its sequels in the Aces High, Jokers Wild series. The possibilities of gene tailoring sound great...until you realize that every genetic flaw will become a moral failing. When perfect becomes possible, imperfect becomes criminal. We see it already: I’ve caught myself thinking ‘wow...didn’t your parents care about that?’ when I see an adult with crooked teeth. We extoll clear skin and lustrous hair. Thousands of trees have died for magazines that tell us that we just have to drink more water, exercise, and eat our vegetables to get smooth skin...they don’t talk about how much money the ladies on their covers spend to get it, though.
We confuse moral worth with physical perfection. And in an era when genes can be edited, that may get a lot worse. Those who can't afford or don't want to improve their children will be listed as criminally negligent. And you have to wonder what it'll do to our sense of humanity.
Well, some people have to wonder. I have to write.
In The Hands We're Given, I've loved playing with the power, the costs and the downfalls of genomic tailoring. In 2155, drugs are tailored to your personal genome, which improves their effectiveness many times over. But your genome is also used against you.
For example, there’s the medical Cavanaugh Corporation, which has publicly stated that its aim is to perfect humanity. Genetic 'aberration' is treated as a punishable offense by Corporation-contracted workers: after all, they're removing future profits by producing children that will have lower productivity. 'Aberrant' children with preventable genetic issues (and the list of preventable issues is very, very long) are listed as cases of neglect. Babies born 'aberrant' to mothers who could not afford gene optimizing are removed from the home, under the Aberrant Progeny Policy.
For the company's upper management, gene optimizing is compulsory. I explore these issues in writing the character of Kevin McIllian. Kevin was born into a family belonging to the upper echelons of Cavanaugh's management structure, and his genome was designed to the specifications of a Corporate board. His brain chemistry and function should have been optimized in vitro as well, but his parents bribed the technicians to leave his mind alone. He treasures the flaws he bears as a result of the incomplete optimization: nearsightedness and a same-sex orientation. They're his only proof that he is still human; that he still has free will and his own choices to make. He hates the fact that he was designed to meet the standards of a Corporate blueprint. He proudly calls himself 'aberrant', and wears the glasses that show off the fact that he's nearsighted as a small, daily gesture of defiance. He detests the fact that he's been manipulated since he was conceived by a Corporation that intended to use him. That anger acts as a fuel, pushing him on.
And then, of course, we get into the fact that every technology has some mistakes. What legacy will the first genomic experiments leave? Will we get children who are genetically perfect in our first trials? Or will they appear perfect until they begin to have children of their own, and spliced genes begin to mix into the germ lines in unexpected ways?
Young Tweak has been my chance to explore this slippery slope. Born to parents genetically designed to require less food and water, Tweak carries the genetic burden of a scientist’s sloppy work. The skin along her arms and legs forms snake-like scales. She produces twice the adrenaline that a human body should. And she stands at only four feet tall. None of these traits have helped her much in life.
But on the flip side, if we could remove Cri-du-Chat, Parkinson’s, and bad teeth from the gene pool, shouldn’t we? Is refusing to remove a gene for cerebral palsy or cystic fibrosis tomorrow any different from refusing to vaccinate a kid today?
Gene editing is a fascinating and terrifying area to look into, because it walks a fine line: on the one hand, the prevention or removal of preventable suffering. On the other hand, the pathologizing of untold numbers of issues. What will end up on the list of 'preventable genetic disorders'. That's my greatest question. And, perhaps, my area of most intense interest as a writer.
The morally grey area of whether we should genetically modify our children or not can be seen as three intersecting planes.
Let’s call Plane One the Access Plane. Who has access to these changes? Who is compelled to be changed? I think in our popular imagination we see the "designer baby" trope played out: class and social power are linked to genetic alteration.On the other side of the coin, we see lower class colonists genetically adjusted for their new worlds in the Spin State novels. In my book, poor countries were incentivised to have their children tailored in order to require less food and water. The children of the rich have been given an eternal leg up with improvements to their joints, bones, metabolism and cognitive function. But should what you can afford really be the factor that decides how well your body functions?
Plane Two, we’ll call the Biological Politics plane. Who gets to determine what needs changing? Is it a democratic choice? Is there a bureaucracy? Is there state intervention when there is a perceived danger to society? And what’s the danger, exactly? We already see some of these issues around the world. For instance: what do you do in a country that wants more boy children than girls? And what do you call a ‘disease?’ In Russia, being gay’s on that list. If we start getting involved before the children of the future draw their first breaths, things could get...unpleasant.
Plane Three is the Plane of Consequences. Beyond looking at the implications of such societies, what are we saying as creators/fans/curators of speculative fiction when we engage with the idea that things like sex/gender/orientation are things that can be tinkered with using genetic technology? Today, academic and medical institutions usually act in ways that perpetuate our current structures of power. It’s the water they swim in. If people could change genomes in the future to suit ‘society’, would they genetically manipulate the population to make sure that men are more intelligent than women? Will they unravel and then erase the genetic triggers for stepping out of the gender binary? And what would that make us, as people? As a writer, it’s my job to ask these questions. I need to hold a mirror up to our society and ask it to look itself in the eye.
Like so many things, I don't want us to label this genetic technology as wholly evil, as writers. Let's not get out the tar-and-feather kit, as people are already doing for GMO crops. But let's use our writing to remind people, again: scientific techniques are amoral. They arrive in a box labeled 'ethics not included'. We have to supply those. Let's use writing to remind our readers that we must use gene-tailoring tech with the greatest possible breadth of fully experienced life and the least harm as the goals. We don't need humanity to be perfect. We need it to be as human as possible.