Texas Perspectives

History Shows Us That We Must Proceed With Caution on How We Influence Our Babies

Dad & Baby
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Designer baby, anyone? It seems that is what the future may hold. Just this past February, for example, model Chrissy Teigen and her husband, singer John Legend, revealed that they decided to choose the gender of their baby, a daughter.

It may seem futuristic, but with technology and science, that future is almost here.

The promise of the future is that we can eliminate defects and unwanted characteristics. We can bring into the world babies who fulfill parental dreams, who are beautiful and intelligent, humane and successful. Sounds good, right? Perhaps.

There are some who think that a world without flaws is not only desirable, but that parents bear a responsibility to improve the human stock using current technology. That failing to seek prenatal testing, if you suspect a fetal genetic disorder, is morally negligent. Some argue that human survival depends on selecting the best children.

But there are hard questions that need to be answered before we set off down this path.

Not so long ago, politicians, social workers and doctors in many places got to choose who could and could not have kids. If you were considered unfit, you might be sterilized, you might be kept in an asylum, and you might see your family broken up. People with hereditary diseases and mental problems were among the unfit. But so were those with criminal records, who suffered from epilepsy, who had a family history of alcoholism or vagrancy, or who were blind, deaf or mute. And the list went on.

The lucky folks who were deemed fit were often rewarded for bringing kids into the world, sometimes with medals and diplomas, sometimes with cash and tax incentives. This was all part of a popular science known as eugenics that swept across the U.S. and many other parts of the world from Scandinavia to the Soviet Union, from Brazil to Britain early in the past century.

Not surprisingly the people who were discouraged, and sometimes prevented, from conceiving were often poor or from minority communities. They were less educated and had little recourse to the courts to challenge decisions made on their behalf.

In fact, in 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the mentally unfit could be sterilized without their consent in order to stamp out heredity mental illness. It was a disastrous decision based on faulty science. Fifty years after that Supreme Court decision, the sterilization of African-American woman in the Deep South was so widespread it was called the “Mississippi appendectomy.”

The technologies available today are obviously more sophisticated than scientists a century ago could have imagined. We know more about mental disease. We can terminate fetuses safely. And we can engineer many traits a fetus will carry.

The result has been that sperm banks charge more for specimens from high IQ or highly athletic individuals. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, known as PGD, reveals the sex of a baby and in some countries has resulted in shrinking female populations.

All of this goes by the seductive name of reproductive enhancement, intended to broadcast a message of progress and betterment. We should not be so sure. It’s a course that will, yet again and perhaps unintentionally, favor the wealthy over the poor, widening the already yawning gulf between classes and deepening social inequalities.

In Texas — which has the country’s highest rate of residents without health insurance including almost 9 percent of the state’s children — where teen pregnancy is much higher than the national average and where pregnant women die at a greater rate than elsewhere in the country, the disparities between rich and poor already take a devastating toll. It’s an easy path from noting those statistics to deciding that some who live here just aren’t worthy to have children.

It could also make for a boringly homogenous world in which the endearing messiness of human difference becomes little more than a marker of class difference, and privilege yields entirely to consumer blandness. It’s not a world I want to live in. But we as a society must choose how far we are willing to go. History can serve as a good guide. Let us all keep that in mind.

Philippa Levine is the Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in Abilene Reporter News and the Austin American Statesman.

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