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In Babies by Design, Ronald M. Green has produced a helpful, interesting, and above all clear introduction to the ethical issues surrounding the use of new and prospective genetic technologies. His focus is primarily, though despite his title not exclusively, on the application that such technologies have to the avoidance of genetic disorder in future children, as well as to the more controversial issue of the production of children with enhanced capabilities. The book is ideal for students new to the field, and for the intelligent general reader. Those already familiar with the ethical problems it covers will find nothing especially new in it, though they may derive considerable benefit from Green's careful accounts of the science of human genetic engineering. Certainly, the work is commendably free of jargon, assumes no prior knowledge of philosophy in general or bioethics in particular, and is written in a remarkably lucid and engaging style.
This lucidity, indeed, is one of the book's prime virtues. For example, I have never seen as clear, compact, yet accurate a summary of John Rawls's theory of justice as Green offers--to good argumentative effect--in his sixth chapter ("Will we create a 'Genobility'?"). And for sure, Green's tone throughout is not that of the dry academic work, but is light and accessible. The opening lines of Chapter 2 are fairly representative, though I concede that they might not be to every reader's taste:
Mario Capecchi has invented a technology that could change our world. Seated in his fifth-floor office in the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics on the University of Utah campus, with the Great Salt Lake and Oquirrh mountain range shimmering in the window behind him, he reviews the ways that genome research is expanding our ability to understand and alter human genetic inheritance. Capecchi's voice rises with emotion when he considers whether we should go beyond genetic selection to actively modify the human genome.
Green's overall position on the issues he addresses is, at least officially, one of cautious bio-liberalism. That is, he thinks on balance that we ought to embrace the use of genetic science both to prevent disorder in, and to enhance, our offspring. At the same time, he is aware that possible risks--to individuals, families, and society at large--lurk in the shadows. He does not shy away from these risks, though he is optimistic that they can universally be overcome. He is at his most convincing (and enlightening) here when detailing, in Chapter 4, the scientific means by which the physical risks of human genetic modification might be managed.
The idea, then, is that the book provides a balanced account of its topic, sensitive to the worries of the bio-conservative who, in contemplating our proposed genetic future, sees only potential disaster in the shape of eugenic programs, damaged family relations, harmed children, and mass social injustice. It envisions itself, then, as no unequivocally enthusiastic bio-liberal polemic, of the sort produced by, for instance, John Harris or Julian Savulescu. For the most part, it achieves its aim, though there are occasions on which the concessions made to the bio-conservative can present the appearance of a mere rhetorical strategy. Green frequently comments, after outlining a set of reservations about some aspect of genetic intervention, "These are serious concerns," before going on immediately to dismiss them (for example, p. 8: "In the chapters ahead we will see that there are serious reasons for concern"; p. 226: "The likelihood of reinforcing prejudice and unjust inequality is a serious concern. Nevertheless ...") If they are so readily dealt with, one wonders in what sense the concerns can genuinely be said to be serious. It cannot be that Green thinks that they are tremendously compelling; it is evident that he does not. Is it simply that those who hold them take them seriously, though they ought not to? This would hardly make them serious in themselves. Green's "These are serious concerns," then, can at times seem to do the same rhetorical work as Mark Anthony's "Brutus is an honourable man".
Perhaps, however, I am being unfair. It is far from obvious whether this is the case, but Green may simply be conceding that the dangers to which the bio-conservative points are genuine possibilities, while insisting that they can nonetheless be avoided. It is possible, so long as we are careful--and, as suggested in the final chapter, so long as we avoid regulatory arrangements that can be railroaded by narrow interest groups--for our genetic future to be rosy. When deployed with moral sensitivity, genetic technologies can be a powerful tool in the support of individuals and the family, and can boost rather than undermine the production of a just society.
Not every aspect of Green's approach in the book works as well as it might: while it is on paper a good idea to use works of science-fiction to shed light on bioethical issues, the execution here--using at least one science-fiction story in all chapters but the final one--meets with varying levels of success. Sometimes it is less than clear why it is being done, other than to make good the promise that it will be done. Green's straightforward arguments are almost always more enlightening than any number of examples from fiction, and can easily stand on their own.
Despite the slight reservations I have expressed, I think that Babies by Design is a very useful and worthy text. Students and general readers will find it enormously accessible and will profit greatly from reading it. To ensure that they are gaining a truly balanced picture, however, they would be well-advised to read it in combination with some of the bio-conservative works that Green cites.
© 2009 Peter Herissone-Kelly
Peter Herissone-Kelly, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Central Lancashire and Visiting Fellow, University of Bolton