When Science Fiction Becomes Reality

I enjoy movies, especially ones that teach a lesson. Two of my favorite movies are Gattaca (1997) and The Island (2005). The reason I enjoy both of these movies is that they provide a strong commentary on the importance of human dignity. The setting for both films is a futuristic society, in which science has allowed human beings to be crafted in a way that all their imperfections are removed.   However, the genetic modification of people does not lead to a more perfect society; rather it creates a world in which human beings and human life are seen as  commodities. 


Gattaca features Ethan Hawke portraying a naturally-born (as opposed to a genetically engineered) character who faces extreme discrimination in a society where people are crafted to be perfect.  The plot of the movie follows him as he seeks to fulfill his goal of becoming an astronaut; a goal in which he must assume a false identity in order to attain it, while avoiding detection from the authorities.  I will let you watch the movie yourself to see how it turns out. 


The concept of genetically engineered people is the stuff of science fiction, correct?  Not so fast. A recent article in Foreign Affairs Magazine by Jamie Metzl would have one question this premise.  Metzl critiques the recent advances in science that allow doctors to analyze the embryos prior to implantation (In Vitro Fertilization) to find the one or two genetically superior versions (i.e. the one with least likelihood of genetic abnormalities). This theoretically will allow parents to give birth to a healthier, stronger and far superior baby. Aside from the moral implications of creating embryos (future babies) that will be destroyed due to perceived genetic shortcomings, this may seem to be a potentially beneficial concept. After all, what parent would not like to give birth to a strong, healthy child?  Metzl then goes on to describe current research that is going on in the area of “genetic enhancement”--a process to repair genetic mutations, lengthen life spans, enhance brain function and senses, increase endurance, and protect the person from disease. Please see the clip below from the movie Gattaca to compare the premise of the movie to what I just described.




I find the premise of the movie and the reality that Metzl describes eerily similar. Take the line found at 1:05 from the protagonist (Vincent Anton Freeman): “I never understood what possessed my mother to put my fate in God's hands, rather than those of her local geneticists.” Now compare this with the tag line from the Austin Fertility Center, “Don't leave your conception to chance.”


It is important to note, that many nations have banned genetic analysis due to fears of creating a “designer baby” market in which parents are able to select certain desired physical features, in addition to selecting gender.


The premise of the movie, The Island is that there is a community that is made up of cloned people, who have been created in order for their “owners” to harvest desired organs from them. The characters played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson discover the reality of what they were created for and escape from their community to attempt to bring awareness to this phenomenon.

[video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIfVwTGAJBM]

In 2007, NBA All-Star Carlos Boozer and his wife made the decision to do something very similar, which was a feature of an ESPN E:60 episode. They gave birth to a naturally conceived son, who was diagnosed with Sickle-Cell Anemia, and was given a very short life expectancy.  Unless a bone morrow donor was found to facilitate the growth of new blood cells, their son's prognosis was poor. To aid in obtaining a donor, Boozer and his wife decided to create a child that could provide this donation and allow their first child to live. With this goal in mind, they underwent IVF and genetic analysis to ensure that their next child would not have sickle-cell anemia, and gave birth to twins. Stem cells were then taken from the umbilical cord of one of the babies and injected into their one-year-old child. In the end, all three of their children are now happy and healthy. However, it does pose an interesting question, were their twins given life for their own sake, or for the sake of their older brother? I sympathize with the Boozers and the potential tragedy of losing a child, but the decision to engineer a child in order to save another child is a morally tenuous idea.

[video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWU22DGOO2c]

I do not profess to have all the answers. However, I do think it is important that we ask ourselves as a society where the line needs to be drawn in the sand. It is crucial that we afford human life the dignity that it deserves, and that we not take away from the gift of life that God has given us. I enjoy Gattaca and The Island as movies, but I would not want to live in these societies; there is no universal recognition of human dignity. I hope in the near future those knowledgeable in science and ethics can come to an agreement on where the boundaries are to be established in order to preserve the sanctity of life and the inherent dignity of all people.