Prenatal Genetic Alteration: Vices & Virtues


A review of The Virtues and Vices of Rigging the Natural Lottery: A Character-Based Evaluation of Prenatal Genetic Alteration, by Ryan Tonkens.

Prenatal Genetic Alteration (PGA) is the genetic engineering of embryos or fetuses with the goal of either correcting genetic disorders or enhancing traits that have some genetic basis (e.g. intelligence, height, athletic ability, immune system function, etc.). Although not currently possible the moral permissibility of PGA of children (if it were to ever become available in the future) has been hotly debated. Yet the debate has usually consisted of either deontological or consequentialist standpoints and has so far failed to produce an answer to the question. In his dissertation, Ryan Tonkens instead approaches the question from a virtue-based perspective. He asks whether PGA is something that virtuous parents would undertake for their children. As he asserts, the likely consequences of PGA are currently too uncertain for us to be able to pass moral judgment based on them, and even if PGA is determined to fall within reproductive autonomy, establishing that a parent has the right to undertake PGA for their child does not establish it as morally permissible. In order to determine the latter, Tonkens focuses on the moral character of a virtuous parent in order to determine whether PGA is in line with how such a parent would act. It is an approach that also makes practical sense, since parents are the agents who would decide whether or not to choose PGA for their child.

The dissertation is divided into three parts. Part One establishes the need for a virtue-based perspective by analysing the consequentialist and rights-based arguments concerning PGA. Beginning with the consequentialist perspective, Chapter One discusses the potential threats posed by the physical, psychological, social and moral consequences of PGA and establishes them as threats worthy of being taken seriously.

Chapter Two first critiques the deontological perspective on PGA – in particular, Julian Savulescu’s “principle of procreative beneficence” – that parents should be obliged to choose the best child possible (i.e. the child that would live the best life in the society in which it lives). Here, Tonkens points out that other relevant parental virtues such as honesty, love and acceptance are ignored and may actually conflict with procreative beneficence. In this way, “Just securing the best children possible does not entail that one has behaved morally, or that one is a good parent” (p. 77), so the principle of procreative beneficence can only take us so far. On the consequentialist perspective, Tonkens critiques John Harris’ risk/benefit analysis of PGA, pointing out that given the current absence of empirical data on PGA, any risk/benefit analysis is based on mere speculation. In order to generate the empirical data needed to make such assessments, parents would need to volunteer their unborn children for experimental research in genetic alteration. As the jump from similar animal research to humans would be quite large (given the traits that could potentially be altered), the risk that prospective parents would be taking is one that Tonkens argues a virtuous parent would not choose to undergo.

Tonkens shows that without an empirical leg to stand on, the consequentialist account is inadequate for deciding the moral permissibility of PGA. However, a focus on the character of parents considering PGA has the potential to bypass the “empirical blindness” to which PGA is currently subject by asking what the characteristics of good parents are, and whether PGA is consistent with those characteristics. It is to this end that Part Two is devoted.

Drawing particularly on Christine Swanton, Chapter Three discusses what it means to be a virtuous parent, which is here defined as one who acts in ways which are most likely to promote their child’s flourishing. Whether the child actually goes on to flourish is tangential, as the focus here is on the moral character of the parent. Among other points, the chapter addresses Frances Kamm’s objection to PGA, which is that we lack imagination when it comes to designing babies. The best point made here is that “Even if it turns out that (less-than-virtuous) parents would not pursue PGA creatively, this is not enough to condemn PGA altogether, but rather to demand that those parents who do choose to genetically enhance their unborn children do so creatively” (p. 167). Indeed, some form of creativity may be behind many actions of virtuous parents – a point which the chapter makes very well.

Having established the nature of virtuous parenting in general in Chapter Three, Chapter Four begins the task of compiling a list of the parental virtues most relevant to PGA by presenting wisdom and prudence as two contenders for parental virtues. This is done by outlining a strong version of “the precautionary principle” as well as a detailed examination of what it means to be a virtuous risk-taker. Importantly, it is not the consequences of the risk taken, but the character of the risk-taker that is of moral relevance here.

Chapter Five examines acceptance, parental love, beneficence, committedness, generosity and honesty as parental virtues relevant to PGA. In all cases, the litmus test for their place as a parental virtue is to what extent the characteristic contributes to a child’s flourishing. For example, Tonkens argues persuasively that, contrary to authors such as McDougall, acceptance is a virtue not because of the unpredictability of a child’s traits and aspirations, but because of the role that appreciating a child for who she is (within reason) contributes to her flourishing.

Chapter Six applies the virtue-based account established in chapters four and five to PGA. Tonkens emphasises the importance of context and so divides PGA into four cases: 1) enhanced immune system functioning, 2) treatment of genetic disease or impairment, 3) cognitive enhancements, and 4) genetic alteration packages (whereby a parent could choose a combination of the prior three options). Tonkens concludes that virtuous parents would be more justified in seriously considering PGA to treat a devastating genetic disease, since “the health and wellbeing of the child (the fundamental elements of the child’s capacity to flourish) may be at stake no matter what we do” (p. 296). However, the current state of the art renders most forms of PGA far too risky at present, and therefore inconsistent with most of the parental virtues.

Chapter Seven takes a slightly different turn and examines whether PGA is consistent with being a virtuous child and a virtuous genetic engineer. Given the philosophical literature’s treatment of PGA children as merely someone acted upon, this represents a unique approach. Tonkens suggests that a virtuous child would need to be appropriately forgiving of her parents if PGA went wrong, despite having been undertaken virtuously. The genetic engineer would need to demonstrate virtues similar to the parental virtues such that if he or she had reason to believe that PGA would be very risky, then a virtuous genetic engineer should not offer it (except, perhaps, for the treatment of devastating genetic disease).

The dissertation concludes that while there is nothing inherently vicious about the practice of PGA, to do so under the current state of affairs would be. Further, while the technology may in the future advance to a level whereby parents can virtuously choose PGA for their children, such a level would only have been possible if other parents had been vicious enough to subject their children to risky PGA experimentation. Overall, this dissertation represents a useful and practical contribution to the literature on PGA. Its strengths lie especially in its reliance on the present state of affairs regarding PGA rather than on hypotheticals, and in going beyond a discussion of merely whether parents would have a right to perform PGA, but whether it would be morally virtuous to do so.

Tamara Kayali
Research School of Biology
Australian National University

Primary Sources

John Harris
Rosalind McDougall
Christine Overall
Julian Savulescu
Christine Swanton

Dissertation Information

York University (Toronto). 2012. 364pp. Primary Advisor: Duff Waring.

Image: Prenatal picture of a human embryo. Wikimedia Commons.

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