Thursday, May 11, 2006


Last night, I watched Gattaca. Yeah, it's from 1997, and I'm way behind the times... but oh well. :)

The movie is part sci-fi concept, part action/drama, and part romance. The sci-fi concept part worked very well. The other two parts... well, I can see why the movie wasn't a blockbuster.

The sci-fi part of the story involves a world (quite believable, from my perspective) where handheld machines can instantaneously evaluate any skin/hair/saliva/etc from a person, identify them genetically, and also print out their genetic probabilities for various diseases, weaknesses, imperfections, etc. Because of this ability, job interviews consist of nothing more than a blood sample... those with the right genetic makeup have opportunities unbounded, those without... are janitors.

The natural consequence of this ability is that nearly all parents opt for IVF. They have a number of eggs fertilized, then have the genetic makeup of the resulting fertilized eggs examined, and select their child from the resulting options based on the child's genetic probabilities... which will obviously determine the child's opportunities in such a genetically-aware world.

This ties in to the recent IVF post, and also has some fascinating connections to an earlier post on my other blog about whether human consciousness is purely biological. The main character is a young man who was not selected from IVF, but was allowed to be conceived naturally. He has physical weaknesses that genetically-selected individuals don't have (such as bad eyesight), but also has a strength of character that sets him apart. Is that "strength of character" something that comes genetically, but which the scientists had not been able to isolate? Or is it something beyond genetics altogether?

If any of you have seen the movie... what did you think? Even if you haven't... does this scenario seem plausible to you? Healthy? If not healthy, what can be done to avoid it?



Kevin said...

I liked GATTACA. "There is no gene for the human spirit." Maybe there were some hiccups with the movie or perhaps with what I wish could or should have happened, but it had many excellent parts and it addressed some fundamental human issues, including:

1. nature (genetics) vs. nurture (environment).
2. predestination vs. free-will.
3. statistics vs. the individual.

It responded to those issues with what I consider to be a positive answer, namely that through our own persistent, willful actions to change ourselves and our lives, we can overcome the odds. Indeed, that such willfulness is what can make us great, and that it is not innate or readily measured since our strength of will is so often born of our choices in the face of the greatest hardships.

Thus, it is not merely the statistics but also our belief in those statistics that can influence us -- the same statistics and societal expectations that should ostensibly bear against Vincent (but instead perhaps motivated him in defiance), actually had a greater negative impact upon Jerome, making him feel like an anomalous failure. "He to whom much is given, much is required"; perhaps this was too much of an emotional burden.

I do believe the basic scientific predictions of the movie will come to pass. People have already and will continue to genetically engineer (or selectively eliminate) their offspring to avoid known genetic issues. And, slowly, genetic tests may creep in for certain jobs (perhaps astronauts?). Of course, all of this is born from good intentions for your child and for others, respectively. From the trivia page linked from IMDB:
When Gattaca was first released, as part of a marketing campaign there were adverts for people to call up and have their children genetically engineered. Thousands of people called, wanting to have their offspring genetically engineered.

While I do have a pervasive inclination towards nature, I have not come to any strong moral conclusions regarding IVF. Is IVF-based genetic selection moral? Would it be more moral to alter the genetics of a naturally implanted embryo? I'm not sure I can make these decisions with any certainty, and so I am passively permissive.

Throughout history, some humans have argued for the inherent inferiority of other humans. Of course, they were flawed arguments based upon lies, but what if we could prove such genetic and intellectual inferiority? Would we all still be "created equal"? Man is currently a unique species but what if, by means of man or nature, a second sentient species is created which is provably superior? The implications of an Atheistic view of Evolution concerns me.

(spoiler) The movie has largely faded from my mind but if I recall, Vincent goes off into the semi-isolation of space, leaving his would-be love behind. Perhaps this also raises the question of whether he will be happier there?

Mark Congdon said...


Thanks for sharing. I watched parts of the movie again last night, as my wife was watching it when I came home. It struck me that the genetic selection separated the world into two groups: those who had stiflingly high expectations put on them ("no excuse to fail"), and those who had stiflingly low expectations put on them (no opportunities, no hope or drive to improve). Somehow, there must be a balance between those two.

It reminded me of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. That movie also has a tension between too-high expectations, which have a paralyzing effect on some of the children, and too-low expectations, which hamper a gifted child from reaching full potential. Finding this balance is a difficult struggle as a parent.

To a large degree, I think the issue is value. In Gattaca, the genetically-selected children were selected for performance-enhancing characteristics... so naturally they perceived their value to be based on their performance. Conversely, the non-selected children perceived their lack of value to be based on their incapacities for performance. A healthy balance, though, as seen in Searching for Bobby Fischer, puts the individual's value not on their performance, but on their relationships. This frees the individual to strive endlessly to perform well, without fearing the prospect of possible failure.

By the way... at the end of Gattaca, the interplanetary trip was only for one year, and the earthly love interest had promised to be waiting for him when he returned. Before he leaves, he says (to her) that just as he has finally achieved his goal of leaving earth, he has found a reason to stay. I think his happiness on earth after his return was his real vision at that point.


purple_kangaroo said...

Remember that Numb3rs episode where a researcher was murdered? The researcher was using statistics and computer models to decide what schools and communities were likely to have the most potential, and diverting funds and programs away from less promising communities to those with a higher probability of success?

The brilliant young computer scientist/mathematician made the point that, according to that model, he should never have been given the opportunity to learn computers or math.

Any time we have the ability to choose which lives are worth existing based on criteria like gender, abilities, etc. we run into similar ethical problems.

And, yes, I think we are already doing that to some extent and that it will become more prevalent with things like IVF. I just don't think we should be able to manipulate so many things about what kind of people come into existence, stay alive, or are given opportunities.

Kevin said...

Thanks for clarifying the ending, Mark; that sounds a lot nicer. I agree with you and PK about the need to balance expectations and opportunities. Funding the most promising communities sounds like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Of course, while most people follow their script, there are others who choose to follow a counter-script, as Vincent illustrated. In a sense, we become strong through adversity. Motivation may be lost when we are flooded with opportunity.

In some sense, I agree with you, PK. It is such a huge responsibility that perhaps it is better to leave it to "chance" or to nature, since we cannot perfectly predict the future. More than once, I've heard people imply that God works within the random unknown -- perhaps even that we should therefore preserve that unknown. But that does not make sense to me, since God's people perish for lack of knowledge or rejecting knowledge.

But with such knowledge comes the responsibility for what will happen. Do you think the moral argument would flip if we could "fix" genetic disorders of an already attached embryo, rather than selecting from many embryos for IVF?

miraclebaby said...

WHile I am not extremely educated in the area of IVF I know the basic principles of it. I would like to comment on this post as well as the comment by PurpleK on the "mom at 63" post, since the issues are related. I can see your point about "tampering" with nature as far as selecting embryos based on genetic makeup. In my opinion, this is crossing a line.

But I am going to say that I do not believe that IVF in itself is morally wrong. You had brought up the point earlier that there is a higher rate of miscarriage with IVF pregnancies. Statstically at least one in 4 pregnancies end in the death of the embryo, many before the woman knows she is pregnant because of the sperm/egg combination being faulty for one reason or another. I would tend to think that because the sperm are "washed" and the healthiest eggs picked, the percentage of the embryos that die would probably be not any higher (if not lower) than naturally occuring conceptions. Most people prefer to use as many embryos as possible because of the natural percentages for miscarriage. And since the woman is considered pregnant from the moment these embryos are placed within her, the incidence of KNOWING how many embryos have died is going to be higher because it is monitored.

I also have another thought on the coment about women getting IVF to quote..."usually, there is a reason that people can't get pregnant--often because there is some genetic defect in their eggs and/or sperm or because the woman's body is not capable of carrying a healthy pregnancy to term." This is making assumptions in certain areas. There is a big difference between being able to concieve without help and being able to carry to term. Many people have a problem with conception, and at least 30% of these cases are unknown reasons of infertility, meaning the sperm, eggs, mother's womb and such have been tested and found healthy. That is a very large percentage. Yet another percentage are merely hormonal problems, and yet more indeed ARE problems with the sperm, but in the case of IVF and even IUI the unhealthy (as far as they know) sperm are washed out and only apparently healthy ones remain. I think it is pretty rare the instance of the father being a carrier of a disease like that being allowed to be a donor, but for well-known diseases such as cyctic fibrosis and scores of others, there are simple blood tests that can be done to tell you what chance you have of being a carrier. Unfortunately, there are chances of ANY baby haveing any number of diseases or defects.

As far as not being able to carry to term a healthy pregnancy, I do not think that is even an issue with IVF as the majority of people use IVF because of a problem concieving. Once they have concieved, as long as other risk factors are ruled out, there is no reason why they should not be able to carry to term.

IMHO, IVF helps thousands of women be able to carry a a baby that would never have had the chance to have that experience. Unless one has had a struggle to concieve or carry to term, I think it is hard to understand the immense grief of missing this part of womanhood. I have a friend now that is pregnant with twins from IVF using her own eggs and her husband's sperm and freezing the embryo for use either by them or by another couple in the future. I do not see that this is wrong I see that this is a gift from God in answer to their prayers of over 7 years not being able to concieve. I could tell you countless stories like this. Just some food for thought. I am not the best at debate, but there you have it.

purple_kangaroo said...

Fixing disorders in an existing person would, I think, fall into the same category as treating disease. IMHO that's a completely different thing from accepting or rejecting someone based on their genetic makeup.

purple_kangaroo said...

miraclebaby, it looks like we were posting at the same time. Your input gives some interesting food for thought--I'll have to come back to it later. I'm posting in 2- to 5-minute increments between doing other things today. :)

Mark Congdon said...


Thanks for joining in!

I am not the best at debate, but there you have it.

It's a good thing, because this site isn't intended for debate. :)

We are thrilled to have your input and perspective. It is unique, I think, from the perspective of anyone else in this discussion, and quite valuable to the dialog.



miraclebaby said...

Thnaks, I will try to join in when I feel like I have something valuable to add....

I do want to add a bit on to what I said earlier. To clarify (I went back and read my last paragraph and the wording was funny) the couple that used IVF had one embryo that they decided not to have implanted, so that is the one they froze for later use or donation.

As I said before, I do believe that IVF in itself is not morally wrong, however, I would most likely take issue with the disposal of embryos rather than the donation of them, because if indeed you believe that life begins at conception, disposing of them would be disposing of life. This is basically a decision that is made not by the medical dr. but by the "parents" of the embryo, being that it is theirs. Some people decide to use all the embryos and some decide only to use a few, so it is a case by case basis as far as whether it is right or wrong to me. Does that make sense?

This whole concept of genetic selection reminds me of the recent movie The Island, where people are basically cloned and raised in a world where everything is decided for them, and then their organs are used for the person they have been cloned after as an insurance policy. In the outside world, they are considered just that.... insurance rather than people.

Do you think our world is headed in this direction?

purple_kangaroo said...

Looks like I'm going to have to do a little more research on IVF in general rather than just talking out of nearly complete ignorance. :)

purple_kangaroo said...

miraclebaby, I replied to one of your points on the other thread.

Douglas_Coombs said...

"As I said before, I do believe that IVF in itself is not morally wrong, however, I would most likely take issue with the disposal of embryos rather than the donation of them, because if indeed you believe that life begins at conception, disposing of them would be disposing of life. This is basically a decision that is made not by the medical dr. but by the "parents" of the embryo, being that it is theirs. Some people decide to use all the embryos and some decide only to use a few, so it is a case by case basis as far as whether it is right or wrong to me. Does that make sense?"

Who is one "donating" the embryos to if they aren't successfully implanted? Is there a big market to adopt these leftover people? What are the ethical ramifications of bringing people into existence when it is known that they will likely either end up being discarded or stored in some suspended state indefinitely and perhaps until they either die in that state or have little chance of successful implantation? What percentage of cases bring only the 'right number' of 'wanted' person into existence and no others? What is the overall ratio of wanted to unwanted people? Is this really a "case by case" basis or is the industry so morally bankrupt that any knowledgable support of it would constitute some complicitness in the crimes committed? If the drug kingpins of Columbia opened up a local supermarket, would it be moral to buy one's groceries there when other options of obtaining groceries existed?

Just asking. I certainly don't know all the latest statistics ready at hand (or I wouldn't have asked), but what I've read in the past about such things sounds frightfully evil.

The scariest thing is that most Christians don't even *consider* the ethical ramifications involved... and many when they do consider such things make decisions based more on emotion than sound science and doctrine. The pain of infertility is so great, some people will be terribly dismissive of any ethical concerns in the attempt to have blood-related offspring. I speak from personal (local) experience not meant to indite anyone on this blog, especially those I don't know.


miraclebaby said...

You make a very good point about the system, and honestly I don't know the statistics on that either. I do know that in some cases, there are no embryos "left over" but again, don't know the percentages. Obviously if everyone invovled with the process thought of them as people rather than "products of conception" more would be done to ensure that they are not left frozen in time or discarded but you have brought up a very good point. Who decides? And how many actually end up donated (probably sold at a high price)? Maybe I need to rethink my stance on this....

But I still have the thought that making these babies through medical means rather than natural is not wrong. To me it is one of those gray areas because in some cases all the babies created are given an equal cance at life baby being put in the mother's womb. I think an average number of 5 "healthy" embryos are left by the time they are to be implanted into the mother, and because of the odds of miscarrying one are at least one in 4 if not more, people tend to use several, so this for me would be why it is case by case.

But I agree, in cases where there are left over ones that a couple decides not to use all of them, then are they guaranteed that it will not be discarded? I would think that they would give every concievable option because of varying views on when life begins. I know in talking to my friend, they are very adamant about their baby (there was one left after the procedure) not being discarded. She made it sound like if you do not want this to be done, they would make sure that it was donated to another couple if they decided not to use it at a later time.

But again, I am not an expert on IVF either, I have only read about it some and talked to people who have had it done.

Thanks for bringing up some important quetions.

Anonymous said...

Under the current system we are no longer licking the Postal Stamps. Gattaca is an example of why. Have you ever had a Post Office Letter stolen? "I never saved anything for the return."
this is Andrew Niccol's site. I am wondering if he considered the posibility?