Would Einsteen have survived the petri dish?

Kathleen Parker

1/29/2003 12:00:00 AM - Kathleen Parker
Oh where to begin? Let's start with this: "Only the desirable embryos are implanted, and troublesome Billy is never born." I extracted this line from a story in Monday's USA Today about our future, if we choose to accept it, as boutique parents. That is, moms -and dads, if males are still being allowed passage through the birth canal -having the technological wherewithal to select desirable characteristics for their designer children. That day is not far away, according to scientists at a recent UCLA genome conference. Estimates are that gene shopping could be available in 10 years. Meanwhile, fertility clinics already screen for genetic abnormalities, tossing thousands of unhealthy embryos every year. Nature takes care of abnormal or unhealthy embryos, too. It's called a miscarriage. Though emotionally painful and disappointing, miscarriages are often nature's way of eliminating an embryo that isn't developing properly or that is genetically impaired. So far, nature doesn't screen for personalities and behaviors, hence "The Jerry Springer Show." I have to admit, my recoil reflexes relax just a tad when I consider that Springer's show might be rendered mute were genes more carefully selected. But then we are still talking about self-selected screening, and it's unlikely that Springer's guests would see any reason to deprive the world of their genes. Moreover, given the expense of genetically advanced testing on top of the already costly in vitro fertilization requisite to such screening, those who would benefit most from genetic fine-tuning probably won't be on the short list of candidates. Then again, some of us remember when the notion of affordable computers in every home was implausible, a remote fantasy unlikely to be realized until some wildly future date conceivable only to the pocket-protector crowd. Well, voila. The brightest point in the USA Today article was a Pew Charitable Trusts poll that found 70 percent of Americans disapprove of using technology to select traits. Two-thirds of the 1,211 surveyed said it was fine to use the same technology to screen for disease. Reassuring. But human curiosity and technological access have a way of altering the best of intentions. Pop poll: Raise your hand if you've never clicked on a porn link. Thank you, Madam, you can put your hand down now. I proffer this unpalatable example because it makes the point. People who would never buy a porn magazine or rent an X-rated movie or visit a purple palace on the interstate nevertheless might point their mouse and click because ... human curiosity and technological access make "it" -whatever "it" is -compelling and easy. Similarly, how many people can resist the temptation to know the sex of their unborn child when the doctor first offers the option of knowing? Some prefer the mystery, of course, but the human urge to know goes way, way back. It's an old, old story. It is therefore unlikely that future parents will long resist the temptation to know the proclivities of their reproductive product and to exercise the option of nudging their little pre-born darlings in the behavioral department. The same survival impulse that makes us want a better life for our children will drive the narcissistic urge to improve on nature's sometimes lackluster performance. Which brings me back to "troublesome Billy." I'm far more worried about Troublesome Billy than I am about than about Bitchy Betty, who, in a moment of rare oversight I'm sure, escaped mention in the article. We're already culturally repelled by the troublesome Billys among us, such that boys are routinely medicated and or punished for what used to be acknowledged as normal boy behavior. When Billy draws a picture of a gun, he's diagnosed as pre-criminal and dosed to achieve a higher order of being, i.e. feminine complacency. When Billy pulls Susie's pigtail, a clear precursor to date rape, he's sent for sexual harassment reprogramming. And so it goes until Billy is genetically programmed out of the program. Troublesome boys need not be born. Never mind that troublesome sorts are usually my personal favorites. We should be mindful that in routing out the troublesome Billy gene we might prevent Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski, but we might also preclude an Einstein or a Martin Luther King. We can never really know, which remains the moral to that old, old story.