Whenever I tell someone about my research on the ethical issues surrounding reproductive and genetic technologies—everything from assisted reproduction to human genetic enhancement—the first response is usually along the lines of “oh, you mean like in Gattaca?”
Released 20 years ago this past week, the film starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thurman has quietly achieved a cultural status not unlike other memorable late 20th-century science fiction movies such as Blade Runner, Star Wars and ET. Set in the not-too-distant future, the film tells the story of a young man born through natural conception (and with all its mundanity) trying to make it in a world where genetically screening embryos for better bodies, sharper minds and enhanced talents has become the norm.
In many ways, Gattaca is a story about the beauty of reproductive serendipity, and how notions such as love, perseverance and the greater good can’t be engineered by scientists or genetic counselors but are instead a function of the deep human connections that we re-create every generation. Over the years, the film has informed the public’s imagination concerning what it might mean for science and new technologies to have a greater role in how we reproduce and, consequently, which types of persons are considered worthy of being born.
Of course, we have been down this path before. And trying to use science to engineer better humans has led to disastrous outcomes. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century led state, local and national governments from Sacramento to London and Berlin to enact laws and policies that attempted to weed out the weak to promote the state’s vision of the strong—a perspective typically colored through racist, classist and ableist lens. And in the aftermath of the Holocaust and public trials such as those at Nuremburg, the world saw how profoundly evil this idea could be and, moreover, how otherwise respected professionals in science and medicine were responsible for such horrors.
Gattaca tickles the imagination because it presents a vision of a different type of eugenics at play—one seemingly driven by individual choice and familial decision-making that aligns with norms pertaining to free markets and reproductive freedom. Government coercion is absent from the world of Gattaca; indeed, there are laws against genetic discrimination, although they are honored in their breach. But the film reveals how individual choices made in pursuit of human perfection can lead to a different type of coercion that exceeds what any law can mandate. Parents can come to feel that they don’t really have a choice if they want their children to be successful, leading those who are screened for greatness to ultimately become imprisoned by others’ expectations.
Revisiting Gattaca at this time is important precisely because it coincides with the emergence of new genetic technologies that are making a then-futuristic vision put forth two decades ago more a matter of science than fiction. The idea of changing or enhancing human beings via genetic interventions is not exactly new; breakthroughs in recombinant DNA techniques in the 1970s led to some of the first open quandaries about the ethics of this pursuit, and screening embryos for specific diseases such as Tay–Sachs as part of IVF has been around for many years.
However, new developments regarding CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing—where specific genes or sequences can be altered to potentially change or augment any trait with a genetic basis—may offer a radically cheaper and more efficient way to procure this Gattacan future. Moreover, by editing reproductive cells, this type of germ-line engineering can allow for desired traits to be passed on to all future generations. Just three months ago, researchers in Oregon published an article in Nature reporting findings on the first set of human embryos to be engineered using this technique in the U.S. Although controversy continues to surround these results, it is clear the technical groundwork for a CRISPR future is being laid. And what is more Gattacan than not only making sure that your child has high intelligence, blue eyes and musical capabilities, but also that all of your descendants will into perpetuity?
But it is not simply the technological developments and innovations occurring at this moment that leads Gattaca to have a renewed significance. It is also the social and political environments in which we now find ourselves. What made previous eugenics movements so lethal and pernicious were not only the tools, practices and research programs that were developed then. Rather, it was the ideological context of abject racial hatred that led these approaches to be used for particular abhorrent ends. Remarkably, the same social contexts of white nationalism, xenophobia and widening inequality that fueled past eugenic ideologies in America and abroad are resurging today.
Thus, we must ask: What would it mean to embrace new technologies such as CRISPR–Cas9 in order to predetermine the traits of future generations at the very moment white supremacy is, once again, on the rise? How does this increased control over reproduction and human traits intersect with tiki torch–armed men marching through Charlottesville, Va., whose central stated aim is to engage in demographic warfare with minorities?* And what does it mean for these technological and social developments to occur in a context where the head of the executive branch has repeatedly stated his belief that his own success (and presumably others) is based in having good genes?
Gattaca reminds us that as we look forward, we must also look back. Technological developments like gene editing, if safe and accessible for existing patients, can make remarkable contributions to improving human health. But altering the genes of not-yet-existing people is not so much medicine as human experimentation with “better breeding.” As science moves forward in these treacherous times, we must be mindful of our ideological surroundings to ensure the most vulnerable are not targets once again.
White supremacy under the guise of public health, technological progress or human betterment is nothing new. Thus, the very fields of science and medicine that let down so many during past eugenic eras must now step up to make sure these political fantasies do not taint their endeavors once again. As the past year has demonstrated, taking an “It can’t happen here” approach is a luxury that we no longer have.
*Editor’s Note (11/6/17): This sentence was changed after posting to correct an editing error.