On May 28, 2013, the perfect human being was born in Philadelphia.
The infant’s name is Connor. His perfection is genetic. His parents had conceived 13 embryos in vitro. But before implantation, they wanted to eliminate any embryos with genetic defects. The relatively advanced age of the parents had raised concern about the increased probability of fetal abnormalities. A clinic in Oxford, England, scanned tissue samples from each embryo, using a new method called next generation screening. The scan revealed that only three of the embryos were free of chromosomal defect. Connor was the lucky flawless embryo chosen to be implanted and gestated in his mother’s womb.
Connor is undoubtedly a consolation for his parents, who had long sought to bear children by other means, and concern for children’s health is laudable. Nonetheless, the birth of the perfect child has its ethical costs. Presumably, the embryos with chromosomal abnormalities have been or will be destroyed. NGS adds a new weapon to our arsenal to eliminate people with disabilities from the population. Eugenic abortion is increasingly used to destroy bearers of Down syndrome before birth. Currently in the United States, approximately 80 percent of these fetuses are aborted during pregnancy. Carrying the telltale extra chromosome, Down syndrome embryos can now be discarded at the starting gate.
Dagan Wells, the English specialist in NGS, confidently predicts that the method will become economical and routine in the near future. Scanning the entire genotype of the embryo will prevent the implantation not only of embryos with chromosomal imperfections but also of those that carry genetic markers linked to Alzheimer’s or heart disease.
At the Main Line Fertility Clinic, where the child was conceived, Michael Glassner admits that widespread use of NGS might go well beyond health concerns. “You can have a very scary picture painted if you talk about height and hair color.” In a society that tolerates sex-selection abortion and runs a burgeoning market for human eggs culled primarily from college-age women with robust health, high I.Q.’s and athletic prowess, the search for the genetically perfect will brook no limits. The slow and the plump need not apply.
The media celebration of our new genetic standard of perfection tends to obscure the ideals of human perfection that were commonplace in the classroom and the pulpit just a few decades ago. The hunt for the perfect genetic structure has replaced the ancient quest for moral heroism and personal sanctity.
One of my consolations as a philosophy professor has been the opportunity to introduce students to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. They welcome Aristotle’s theory of friendship as an antidote to the nihilism of the sexual hook-up culture. But more and more of them find his concept of perfection baffling.
Aristotelian perfection is not a biological given; it cannot be engineered into existence by mechanical means. Rather, it is the slow, precarious fruit of freedom as the moral agent cultivates the virtues of justice, prudence, courage and temperance against the counterweights of vice. Perfection lies at the end of a personal journey, not in its microscopic start. For many students, this concept of perfection as a hard-won moral maturity has become a cipher.
In a recent final examination, one student summed up the general bewilderment: “I don’t think Aristotle is serious when he says that to be perfect you have to cultivate all these virtues. Who wants to be magnanimous? What does that word mean anyway? He’s kidding, right?” In our quest for biological perfection, the Hellenic ideal of moral perfection has become an enigma.
Even odder for our society is the vision of perfection embodied in the Gospels: “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure laid up for you in heaven” (Mt 19:21). Pope Francis is certainly on board. But how many of our contemporaries can comprehend an ascetical concept of perfection that prizes material dispossession, love of the poor and spiritual abandonment? Further, how many of us truly believe that the slightest trace of such evangelical perfection is worth more than all the fault-free genotypes in the world?