Designer Babies and Blackness.

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The other week, I was scrolling on Twitter and this video of a black baby gave me so much joy. There was this little dark-skinned, baby girl, just old enough to speak comprehensively, and she was looking in the mirror posing and saying, “I’m GOOOORRRR-geous, I’m GOOORRR-geous.” Duh – anyone’s baby calling themselves gorgeous on camera is adorable and has potential to go viral. But to see a dark-skinned baby, saying with confidence how beautiful she is before she is potty trained warmed my heart.

Colorism is present in many cultures. However, it is especially prevalent in black communities in the United States. Colorism originated in slavery, prospered well through the Civil Rights Era, and has currently planted itself like a weed watered by society’s beauty standards. Individuals were considered more attractive based on how European one’s features were and how fair one’s skin wasa. Preferential treatment and perceived attractiveness based on skin color looms over black children from a very early age.

Traditionally, babies have been conceived with their parent’s gene pool dictating their genetics. But now, an embryo’s genes can be modified before it is even implanted in the womb. The primary purpose of genetically modifying these embryos is to diagnose and remove genetic illness from an embryo. However, it can also predetermine the sex of an embryo and is foreseen to be able to change eye colors, height, and IQ. Naturally, this scientific breakthrough has created a heated ethical debate regarding the use of experimentation on embryos, the general effectiveness of editing genes, and parental power in the making of a baby. This technology can ultimately lead to the creation of designer babies – where parent’s could use genetic modification to enhance “positive qualities” of their children. However, I would like to introduce this thought – will designer babies fan the flames of colorism in the black community? Or more simply put – if you had the option to make your child lighter skinned or darker skinned, would you take it?

Theoretically it could be done. Melanocytes are the skin cells that determine your skin color. Cells carry your DNA. If you can alter or remove DNA from an embryo, you could potentially do the same with skin cells. Truth be told – no would would even have to know. Ethically speaking, this would be problematic. Altering the physical appearance of an infant in general, without their say in the matter, is already a recipe for disaster – especially in the context of skin color. For a black infant, it could send a very negative message to the infant due to the sensitive nature of colorism, beauty, and appearance in black communities. Most importantly, it could aggravate self-hatred in black communities as well. It would directly imply that darker skin and African features are not acceptable and that it is so offensive that a parent is willing to clinically and genetically change it before the child reaches the womb. Culturally speaking, this would be equally as problematic.

Green eyes, looser curls, lighter skin. Before, a person couldn’t choose how you looked. Now, there are options. There is always someone we would be if we had the option. Who would you choose? If you looked deep, would you be cool with who you are? It’s 2017 – we would all say yes in front of the cameras. No one wants to admit that they are not content with themselves – or who their children could be. But designer babies are on the horizon and there is no better time for us to do some self examination. Are we really black and proud – proud enough to let the option just be an option? Or would we make some changes? No need to answer – some things are just meant for you, God, and your therapist.

Thinking out loud,

The Neighborhood Bioethicist

(This post has been updated as of 6/28/2017 to clarify the difference between the current technology used for preimplantation genetic diagnosis and the future implications of said technology.)

SOURCES

“DNA | Facts & Structure.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 1, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/science/DNA.
Gallagher, James. “‘Designer Babies’ Debate Should Start, Scientists Say.” BBC News, January 19, 2015, sec. Health. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30742774.
Ghose, Tia, Staff Writer | March 13, and 2014 02:00pm ET. “Children to Order: The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.’” Live Science. Accessed May 26, 2017. http://www.livescience.com/44087-designer-babies-ethics.html.
Knoepfler, Paul. The Ethical Dilemma of Designer Babies. Accessed May 26, 2017. https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_knoepfler_the_ethical_dilemma_of_designer_babies.
“Melanocyte | Biology.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 1, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/science/melanocyte.
Pang, Ronald T. K., and P. C. Ho. “Designer Babies.” Obstetrics, Gynaecology & Reproductive Medicine 26, no. 2 (February 1, 2016): 59–60. doi:10.1016/j.ogrm.2015.11.011.
PM, Newsweek On 1/11/10 at 6:24. “The Ugly Roots of the Light Skin/Dark Skin Divide.” Newsweek, January 11, 2010. http://www.newsweek.com/ugly-roots-light-skindark-skin-divide-213518.
Rochman, Bonnie. “Customized Babies Are Closer than You Think – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com, April 2, 2017. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2017/04/01/customized-babies-are-closer-than-you-think/adVz9LNz6EA3tGyfbmpmwO/story.html.
Whetstine, Leslie M. “Ethical Challenges in Assisted Reproduction: The Place of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis in a Just Society.” Journal of Child Neurology 30, no. 5 (April 1, 2015): 547–50. doi:10.1177/0883073813511151.

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