Genetic Engineering and the Breakdown of the Family

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Both Gattaca and Beggars in Spain take place in futuristic societies in which advanced genetic engineering allows for a person’s characteristics to be controlled simply by altering the person’s genes while they are still an embryo. However, the unfortunate result of this is that in both stories, children are generally seen not as a gift to be nurtured and brought forth into a world, but as an asset to be controlled and manipulated.  In fact, in both stories the prevalence of genetic engineering is accompanied by an increase in selfishness and a catastrophic breakdown of the family as a loving community in which a child is raised.

In the “ordinary” state of affairs (aka without genetic engineering or in vitro fertilization), a child is not an artificial creation, but rather a natural result of an act of selfless love made between a husband and wife, giving themselves and their bodies totally to each other (hence, it is called love-making).   The child, being the fruit of love, is then naturally loved for his own sake, not because of whatever usefulness it may have later on in life.  The child, being the fruit of this love, grows up immersed in this family and atmosphere of selflessness and learns how to value human beings for their own sake rather than for their usefulness.  With the presence of a good father and mother, the child not only learns the value of love and self-sacrifice, but also learns how men and women are meant to interact with each other through the example of his parents.

However, in Gattaca, Vincent is raised in a household largely devoid of this love.  The society they live in puts the ultimate value of a human being in his usefulness rather than in any inherent dignity he has as a human being.  This is evidenced by the fact that the genetically inferior “invalids” who were conceived by natural means were treated as almost less than human.  When rights and dignity are dependent on usefulness, then only the strong are afforded these rights.  In addition, Vincent never really learned how to form a relationship with a woman, and his relationship with his male companion was filled with much more ease and humanity.  While this could be seen as evidence for homosexual tendencies in Vincent, I think the more plausible explanation is that he simply never had a good example of how men and women relate to each other romantically (an example which usually would have been provided by the parents).

Similarly, in Beggars in Spain, children are not valued as new life and as gifts, but rather as commodities to be manipulated and controlled in pursuit of some false ideal of perfection.  Leisha and Alice’s parents love and value them not for their human dignity, but for their respective statuses, whether as “Sleeper” or “Sleepless.”  This is why their father values Leisha the most and their mother values Alice the most.  The love they receive is not the unconditional love that a family should provide, but rather a conditional and imperfect love.

In this story, unlike in Gattaca, the manipulation of life leads to a loss of dignity for the “genetically superior” rather than the “genetically inferior.”  It is the “Sleepless” who are treated as un-human and undeserving of respect and dignity.  The emphasis on controlling life and valuing human beings only for their usefulness is directly contrary to the idea that humans have inherent dignity and worth, and as a result, respect for human dignity is lost across the board.

Additionally, the love that their father, Roger Camden, had for his first and second wives was a conditional rather than unconditional love.  He valued them not for their inherent dignity or worth but because of the convenience and happiness they offered him, or rather, how useful they were.  Once this usefulness fades, he divorces them, and his love is shown to be purely conditional.

As a result of this breakdown of the family, children in each of these stories are deprived of the love and human formation that is usually provided by a family.  They are seen not as human life, but as a commodity to be modified genetically to be the most useful and “perfect.”

These stories serve as excellent examples of the dangers of genetic manipulation and the importance of accepting and affirming life rather than exerting complete control over it.  And it is a lesson we would do well to learn before we ourselves become one of these societies from “the not too distant future.”

-PJ Jedlovec (pjjed)


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