Is the Use of Genetic Engineering, Pre-Natal Selection, and Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis Inherently Wrong? – Eleanor Beresford

Eleanor Beresford has an undergraduate degree in English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. Her dissertation is comprised of a collection of short stories about anxiety, and a commentary on the portrayal of such disorders in contemporary literature. She is currently teaching English as a Foreign Language in China, but she plans to continue writing short stories before she goes on to do a masters in creative writing next year.

Ethan Hawke as Vincent Freeman in Gattaca

Is the Use of Genetic Engineering, Pre-Natal Selection, and Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis Inherently Wrong?

There are many arguments both for and against influencing the outcome of children through technological means, but most of the arguments against this come from a standpoint that the use of these methods is inherently unethical. It is important to note that just because something makes people feel uncomfortable, this does not automatically mean that it is wrong, therefore this essay will try to work through a discussion of these issues without such biases, in order to construct a rational argument about the use of these technologies.

This essay will discuss three different methods used to influence the outcome of humans with technology; Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), Pre-natal Screening (PNS), and Genetic Engineering. According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, PGD ‘involves checking the genes and/or chromosomes of embryos created through IVF’ before they are implanted into the mother.[1] It results in babies that have been born after their embryos have been selected out of a line up, because they either possessed favourable traits, or did not possess unfavourable traits. PNS is different from PGD, as the embryos are checked for abnormalities after the mother has become pregnant, leading to a possible choice over whether to keep the baby. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, uses enzymes to add or subtract from a stretch of DNA, which will potentially alter certain traits within the resultant person. Bioethicist Jonathan Glover also distinguishes between positive and negative selection or engineering. Where the negative method is used to screen out undesirable traits, such as diseases, from the germline, positive engineering or selection encourages desirable traits, such as athleticism or IQ.[2]

This essay will not discuss the ethics of possible lives or the ethics of discarding embryos, because that is a matter which concerns people that never existed, this essay instead focuses on the cultural impact of these technologies, and the impact they have on the lives of individuals.[3] Nor will it take into account religious or spiritual arguments against pre-natal selection, as I want to examine natural biases and cultural discomforts which are rooted within, rather than those placed onto us by the ethics outlined by religion.

There have been a number of texts and films over the last century which deal with issues of pre-natal selection and genetic engineering, for example; James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series (2005-2015), Nancy Werlin’s Double Helix (2005), Nancy Kress’, Beggars in Spain (1993), and Michael Bay’s The Island (2005). This essay will use examples from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997), and Nick Cassavete’s My Sister’s Keeper (2009). This will allow an examination of three different settings; the first in which the norm of society is to select embryos, where the protagonist has also been selected, the second in which the norm is to select embryos and the protagonist has not been selected, and the third where the norm of society is not to select embryos, but the protagonist has been selected, respectively.

This varied choice of narratives allows for a discussion of the cultural implications of being homogenous within the society described in each novel, in order to explore whether it is in fact the technology itself that is most heavily challenged, or whether the idea of not fitting into our prescribed society is more poignantly problematic. I have selected these texts due to their variance in age and popularity, as looking into more popular texts allows an examination of artworks that are still being absorbed by society. This essay will examine the cultural dilemmas expressed through both contemporary and older artworks, in order to see if the discourse has changed over time and how that change might have manifested itself. I will also work through the reasons that these discussions make us uncomfortable and why we continue to be drawn to such artworks.

The process of embryo selection described in Brave New World is one which screens eggs and discards those with abnormalities.[4] The process is then to place external influences on the environment of the foetus to influence the growth and intelligence of the resultant child.  It therefore uses a combination of PNS which is in line with eugenic policies, by not allowing certain humans to exist, and a crude form of genetic engineering, as the foetus is influenced by the external environment to allow it to become a human with particular traits.

The employment of eugenic policies in the novel is heavily problematized, as the society it shows is unrecognisable from our own. This can be seen most profoundly in the societies’ complete lack of knowledge of the institution of family, ‘Try to imagine what “living with one’s family” meant.’ They tried; but obviously without the smallest success’.[5] This highlights one of the main fears about the employment of genetic engineering outlined by Glover; that it would cause ‘damage to the institution of family’.[6] However, Glover criticises this view on the basis that damage would only occur if decisions about desirable qualities, and prohibition on the qualities that parents can screen for, were totally centralised and controlled by a small amount of people in the government. This is the society that Huxley puts forward. Throughout the novel it becomes apparent that the people operating in the society have no say in how it is run, and that all of these decisions are central to a small group of people. This becomes explicit on the arrival of Mustapha Mond, ‘One of the Ten World Controllers’.[7] Therefore, Huxley’s criticism of embryo selection and genetic engineering seems to be specific to a context of centralisation. This is in line with the conclusion of Glover’s argument, which points to the need for some control, along with an equal need for individual license on a parental level.[8] Because Huxley, in this hypothetical universe, has eradicated the institution of family and parenthood illustrates the possible dehumanising results of technology which has been completely uncensored, rather than denouncing the technology itself. In this instance therefore, the use of genetic engineering and PNS are not problematized, rather, the context in which they are employed is.

Huxley continues to create discomfort at with the type of society which has stemmed from PNS and genetic engineering by drawing parallels between Henry Ford’s invention of the production line and mass production and embryo selection. and by elevating the idea of Ford into a deific figure by using the term ‘his Fordship’ throughout the novel.[9] This continual reference to, and satirical reverence of Ford introduces the idea of the reification of human life into mere products of and for a capitalist system; it makes parallels between human life and the production line, which is in itself a product of, and for consumerism. Whilst critiquing contemporary capitalism, Huxley also warns us against the possible future of human life if we continue to focus on consumerism, as it takes the emphasis out of human lives and places it on human value. Huxley posits that this could diminish any possibility of creative thought and freedom.

Although embryo selection here is used to make us feel uncomfortable about the possible future of capitalism, the way in which Huxley critiques the embryo selection itself, and the reasons which the described society might be inherently negative, have no scientific basis. Conversely, it is signalled within the novel that by growing the embryos externally, the conditions of its growth can be more easily controlled. This is evident when the group of young boys are being given a tour of the hatchery, and ‘the embryo’s troublesome tendency for anaemia’ is controlled for by ‘massive doses of hog’s stomach extract’.[10] This shows that conditions that could not possibly be controlled for within the womb, would now more easily be influenced in order to allow the most favourable outcome for the child. The reification of human life does not here come directly from the embryo selection, but again from the uncensored nature of its employment within the society.

There are instances in the novel where it could be argued that Huxley does challenge the use of embryo selection, by using hyperbolic lexis to depict inconceivable situations . This is can be seen when the Director explains? the process to a group of young adults ‘in exceptional cases we can make one ovary yield over fifteen thousand adult individuals’.[11] Huxley here uses large, inconceivable scales to make the reader feel keenly the otherness of this society and to produce a natural negative reaction from us about this way of life. He repeats this technique by displaying the process of conditioning used on small children, ‘The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror’[12]something which again produces a natural abhorrence from the reader. The link in these two examples is the use of lexis to produce a natural reaction of horror from the reader. Huxley relies on our ideas of horror and abhorrence as proof to support the notion that embryo selection is inherently wrong. The text here avoids questioning our instinctive abhorrence of embryo selection by offering separate problematizations. Huxley therefore justifies our discomfort, instead of questioning it head on, as there is little solid, factual evidence against embryo selection itself, just the fear of what could happen if humans are left to control it without restrictions.

The lexis at the start of Brave New World, referring to the possible advantages of raising an embryo externally, shows that it could hypothetically (as, at this point in history it had never been tried yet) be positively used to screen for abnormalities and control for optimum conditions of growth. It is only after the technology is exploited to the benefit of a society based purely on consumerism and centralisation, that it becomes problematic. Uncomfortable scenes are used to warn us against not censoring the use of these technologies, therefore, in terms of this novel, it seems the fear is more about what people would do with the technology, rather than the technology itself.

As Brave New World was published in 1932, it could be argued that this fear was only present because of the large amount of social change that took place after the second world war. Therefore I will now examine a film from the end of the century to explore whether it is possible for parallels to be made.

The process of embryo selection portrayed in Gattaca allows parents to choose between a line-up of potential foetuses for the one which possesses the most favourable qualities.[13] These favourable qualities focus on the ability for the child to have the healthiest life, along with having the most attractive physical attributes, such as height. This describes an already-existing process; IVF children can be selected based on their likelihood of being healthy. It is set in a society which is in the future, but is not as estranged from our own as Brave New World, as the concepts of the institution of family and individual choice are still present. Unlike Brave New World, the society shown in Gattaca gives individual agency to the parents, and the aspect of central control seems to be absent to the extent that parents can even choose the sex of their child. This is one of the aspects of the employment of embryo selection which is challenged by Glover, as allowing parents complete control over the outcome of their potential child could lead to a possible gender imbalance in society.[14] He proposes the idea that things such as gender should be centrally controlled, or simply left to chance, as it can be assumed that he believes that more people will be born male. This assumption is reasonable, as the rights of women within society today do not meet the same standards as men, and it is still more likely that a male child will be more successful in life than a female child.[15] It cannot be doubted that this is problematic, and I propose that instead of centrally controlling the gender aspect of embryo selection, we should instead first work through the inequalities of society, so that neither gender is prioritised. This would be preferable as it allows the individual more agency, whilst still maintaining an evenly weighted gender balance. This idea of gender imbalance can be seen towards the beginning of the film, when Vincent’s parents select their second child out of a line-up of ‘two healthy boys and two very healthy girls’. Despite the doctor’s extra emphasis on the female embryos, by referring to them as ‘very healthy’, they respond immediately with, ‘we would like Vincent to have a little brother, you know, to play with’, to which the doctor responds, ‘Of course you would’. His response here implies that the doctor is used to this happening, and that it is an accepted norm to choose male embryos over females, especially if the first born was a male. Rather than selecting a female embryo to balance the population, Vincent’s parents choose to have another boy, thus displaying within the film the cultural fear of possible bias in gender selection.

In Gattaca there is more parental control over the outcome of the person, and much less central control over the ways in which people live their lives than in Brave New World. This is evident as the society described is less restricted and people are not conditioned from birth to not want to reproduce naturally, which allows for the existence of the protagonist. The parents are eventually convinced to conform to societal norms when having their second child, as Vincent’s inherent potential to contract diseases results in his treatment as a disabled child for the majority of his life. However, because they were able to conceive Vincent naturally, embryo selection in Gattaca is clearly a social trend rather than a centrally controlled eugenic policy. This shows a reduced anxiety since Brave New World, as the society described has not been totally overturned by the technology, and people continue to have freedom in their life choices.

The use of PGD within the film has creates problematic elitist attitudes and systems, which are reminiscent of the ‘alphas’, ‘betas’ ‘deltas’ and ‘epsilons’ in Brave New World. This is exemplified by the doctor’s assertion that one of the positives of embryo selection is that it creates the ‘best of you’. The use of superlative language points to an elitist way of thinking as it always implies that which is not the same is inherently inferior. Elitism in the film can also be seen in the presence of ‘valids’ and ‘invalids’, a social condition determined by the quality of their genetic makeup, and through Vincent’s statement, ‘My real résumé was in my cells’. The use of PGD technology within this society has led to problematic elitist divides , as those who are deemed ‘invalids’ have no chance of achieving anything above their station.

The possibility of this sort of divide is one which is being discussed critically as technologies like this can initially be expensive, meaning that only the wealthy will initially be able to access them. Ramez Naam addresses this  in More Than Human, explaining that ‘once the patents expire [after 20 years] other companies can manufacture and sell generic versions of the drug,’ without having to spend money on initial research. He argues that ‘when multiple companies sell the same drug, they’re forced to compete on the basis of price’, meaning that the price would eventually be accessible for the majority of the population[16]. In England, the cost of having IVF combined with PGD, is between ‘£6000 – £9000, per treatment cycle’[17], which shows that this type of treatment is still inaccessible to poorer people in society today. As Naam’s book was written 11 years ago, and these technologies are still largely inaccessible, it is fair to say that the divide described in Gattaca could be possible. Also, the length of time Naam prescribes for technologies becoming mainstream is too long, as in this time, a whole new generation of people would exist, who are genetically engineered to be more intellectual. This in turn would reduce the chance of the people in that generation who have not received PGD IVF of earning as much money as their enhanced competitors. This divide could hypothetically increase over time, and Gattaca displays this fear at the end of the 20th century.

In My Sister’s Keeper the technology used is also PGD, however it is set in the contemporary world, where this technology is possible, but not the norm in society[18]. The fact that this is the most recent artwork that will be discussed, released in 2009, and it is set in a contemporary society, indicates a move away from dystopia in representing PGD technologies. Where Brave New World distorts the society in which these technologies exist into one which is so centralised that it is unrecognisable from our own, and Gattaca’s society is one in which societal norms of othering those who have not been selected influence decision making, My Sister’s Keeper acknowledges the reality of this technology and normalises it by setting the film in a recognisable environment. Because the society has not been drastically affected by the introduction of this technology into the mainstream, we can clearly see how the discourse has changed since the release of Brave New World in 1932, from one of fear that it will be used to control every aspect of human life and suppress creativity, to one which is used to save lives in a society which has been largely unaffected by the technology. This shows that the discussion in My Sister’s Keeper has moved towards discussing the ‘what now’ rather than the ‘what if’ explored by the other two.

PGD is used in My Sister’s Keeper to select and conceive a child which is most likely to be a donor match for its future sister, and it is often reiterated throughout the film that the purpose of using this technology is to save the life of another. My Sister’s Keeper  therefore offers a similar positive view of PGD technologies hinted at by Brave New World. However, it takes the matter further than suggesting that it could be used as a good thing, by questioning what would happen after it became used for the ‘greater good’, and questioning our definitions of what the ‘greater good’ might be.

In the film, Anna Fitzgerald is conceived and born solely for the purpose of keeping her sister, Kate, alive. This is shown through the scene where the doctor outlines the improbability of finding a donor match for Kate, and ‘off record’ suggests selecting and conceiving an embryo which will be a genetic match for Kate. Prior to this, Sarah Fitzgerald and her husband did not plan to have another child, as is shown through Sarah’s surprise and enthusiasm for the idea when it is presented to her as an option. The idea that Anna was born solely for the purpose of preserving Kate is reinforced throughout the film by Sarah continually stating she ‘doesn’t care what anyone else wants’, and her confession in court that she never asked Anna permission to use her body to save Kate. In an essay highlighting the case for sex selection, bioethicist Julian Savulescu points out that the objection to sex selection based on Kant’s deontological dictum that no person should be born as a means, but as an end, is flawed as it has been misinterpreted. Savulescu points out that ‘Kant’s dictum is actually never to use a person solely as a means’. This is distinction is reflected in My Sister’s Keeper, and therefore it can be interpreted too in terms of PGD for traits other than sex. The problem in My Sister’s Keeper is not with the fact that Anna has to use her body in order to save her sister, it is in the fact that this is the only reason she came into existence. She was created solely as a means. It is therefore not the technology that is recurring as a problem in these artworks, it is the effect that its use has on the individual life after they have gained consciousness.

Over time our natural biases against genetic engineering, PNS and PGD have reduced. In Brave New World, the paranoia stemmed from the possibility of the enhancement technologies completely turning out society inside out, destroying the institution of family and degrading human creativity. Years later, in Gattaca, there was still a paranoia about the influence the technology could have on society, but on the level of dividing society up genetically and creating an elitist environment reminiscent of the feudal system, one where you could not escape your birth right. In Gattaca however, this did not completely destroy the institution of family, and the way of life is fundamentally the similar to our own. Between 1932 and 1997 there was a reduction, but not an eradication of fear about how enhancement and selection technologies could affect society. In the latest text discussed, the film My Sister’s Keeper, the society was unchanged, as the debate moved from hypothetical fears about the impact on society, to more personal discussions about what it does to people on an individual level. Rather than fearing a world altering shift, the discussion in 2009 became more realistic, with more focus on what would happen to each person in the society, rather than the society as a whole. This shift is due to the fact that the technology has become accessible over time, and it is now apparent that these discussions need to be held in a more realistic, non-hypothetical universe.

They all have in common a concern for what would happen if the technology was left uncensored and to be used only to turn humans into a means. The technology itself is rarely questioned, and in all three artworks, the positive elements of the raw technology are highlighted. The fear comes not from the use of genetic engineering, PGD, and PNS, as artworks consistently show their positive uses, from increasing quality of life in Brave New World, to increasing life expectancy in Gattaca, to saving lives in My Sister’s Keeper. It is instead a fear of not censoring these technologies and allowing them to manifest themselves without any central control, and a fear of how humans could use them to create unfavourable environments.


[1] Anonymous, ‘Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD)’ in HFEA Website, (2014) <; [accessed 13/04/2016]

[2] Jonathan Glover, ‘Questions About Some Uses of Genetic Engineering’, in Bioethics: An Anthology ed. by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, 2nd ed, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006) pp. 190-191.

[3] If you want to look further into this, look at Derek Parfit, ‘Rights, Interests and Possible People’ in Bioethics: An Anthology ed. by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).

[4] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, (London: Penguin Random House, 2007).

[5] Huxley, p.30.

[6] Glover, p.189.

[7] Huxleyp.28

[8] Glover, p.196.

[9] Huxley p.28.

[10] Huxley, p.9.

[11] Huxley, p.6.

[12] Huxley, p.6.

[13] Gattaca, dir. by Andrew Niccol, (Sony Pictures: 1997).

[14] Anonymous, ‘UNFPA Guidance Note on Prenatal Sex Selection’ in United Nations Population Fund Website, No Date, <; [accessed 13/04/2016]

[15] David Perfect, Gender Pay Gaps, (NP, 2011) <; [accessed 11/04/2016]

[16] Ramez Naam, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, (Broadway Books, 2005) p.56

[17] Anonymous, Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, Genetic Alliance UK Website, (18/08/2015) <; [accessed 16/04/2016]

[18] My Sister’s Keeper, dir. by Nick Cassavete, (New Line Cinema: 2009)

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