Designing a baby, or editing the genes of an unborn child, strikes many as risky, unseemly, unnatural, unethical, or likely to lead to a dystopian future of one sort or another. Still, I predict that within my lifetime, the United States will arrest, try, and convict some parents for refusing to edit the genes of their child before he or she is born.
Consider what is now punished. In The Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch’s defense of liberal free-speech norms, the author noted that the liberal, scientific view of knowledge, which he was championing, asserts a unique claim to legitimacy in the modern West. Lest anyone doubt his characterization, he cited the fate of Christian Scientists:
On December 4, 1984, a 4-year-old girl named Natalie died very painfully of an infection. The cause was a common bacterium that is almost always cured by antibiotics. Her parents, however, did not use antibiotics. They used prayer. To many of us, that sounds preposterous. But imagine what it is to believe fervently in the healing power of your Lord. Imagine that your child is sick, and you want the best treatment, the one that is right and most likely to work. That treatment is prayer, or so you believe with all your heart. And that treatment you use. “We say those parents chose the method of care they felt was most likely to make their child well,” a church official said; and unquestionably he was right.
Then the child dies, and the parents are charged with manslaughter and child endangerment. Over the last ten years there have been dozens of such cases. In 1990 a two-year-old boy named Robyn died of a bowel obstruction after a five day illness; his parents, David and Ginger Twitchell, were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years’ probation. Pictures in the paper showed the mother, after the trial, cowering in her husband’s arms as he faced news photographers. David Twitchell said, “If I try a method of care I think is working, I will stick with that. If I think it’s not working, I will try something else.” By his own lights, he had tried his best for his child. Anyone who did not happen to share the worldview of medical science could only view the prosecution and conviction of the Twitchells as the most blatant kind of scientific imperialism. Sure, in Robyn’s case and Natalie’s the prayer treatment had failed. But sometimes antibiotics and surgery fail, too. When surgery fails, should parents be put on trial for not having first tried prayer?
Almost no one believes that parents should be put on trial for not having tried prayer––but legislative majorities do believe that parents should be put on trial for withholding mainstream medical treatment when a child suffers greatly or dies as a result. And the medical treatments that are considered mainstream will change over time.