Designer Babies & Compensation Crazy – Review

Gender Agenda
Gender Agenda

Issue 2 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of


Women's Union

Designer Babies & Compensation Crazy

‘Debating Matters’ series, Institute of Ideas

Hodder & Staughton, 2002

Reviewed by Kathleen Richardson

Should we see new technologies that currently diagnose disease as a slippery slope to creating
“designer babies”? Is trust being increasingly eroded by the rise of litigation culture? These
questions, and more, are addressed in a new series of books entitled “Debating Matters”,
published by the Institute of Ideas.

Each book consists of a number of essays, all offering different perspectives on a single
subject. In Compensation Crazy: Do we Blame and Claim too much, the essayists include a risk
analyst, a Professor at Nottingham Law School, and a Barrister. The authors agree that there
is an escalation in litigation culture, but that is where the agreement ends.

Book cover
Whilst notorious cases (such as that brought against McDonalds by a US plaintiff who sued
because the coffee which they had spilled on themselves was allegedly too hot) have gained
this issue disproportionate attention, it is still the case that legal action is now being
taken in response to events which would once have been considered unlucky chance. The
essayists outline various factors that have exacerbated the growth of litigation claims,
though each ascribes the growth in litigation culture to a different cause. Two of the authors
with a legal background, John Peysner and Ian Walker, argue that the decline in the provision
of social welfare and traditional mechanisms of institutional support has prompted individuals
to take a legal route. Risk analyst Tracey Brown disagrees, finding it particularly disturbing
that most claims are settled prior to court. As litigation disputes take place at the “fringes
of the legal process” this creates a destabilising effect on that process, because procedures
do not face public scrutiny. Secondly, and perhaps most interestingly, she examines how
apportioning blame is transforming informal social arrangements into legal contracts, “Acts
such as coping with office politics or putting up with noisy children next door, are being
subjected to legal claims”.

The way in which legal developments shape, and are shaped by, changes in social
interactions, is also a consideration in Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line? This
work raises a series of questions regarding the status of new genetic technologies, and the
possibility of creating so-called “designer babies”. In particular, the book explores a
diagnosis procedure in embryos called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). In 2000, a baby
named Adam made medical history because he was conceived by means of PGD, performed so he
would be born free from Fanconi’s anaemia, a disease affecting his sister. Sections of the
media condemned the practice, arguing that such technologies might be used in the
“pre-selection” of children, whether unwell or not. PGD and other methods are criticised
firstly by those concerned with the eugenics aspect of genetic experimentation and secondly by
disabled rights activists who argue that the practice reinforces negative attitudes towards
disability. Juliet Tizzard, director of the Progress Educational Trust, challenges both the
anti-disability arguments and the fear of genetic engineering. For Tizzard, the decision of a
parent to abort a disabled foetus or select for particular diseases is not indicative of their
stance towards disability in society; Tizzard makes an honest acknowledgement of the
difficulties, for parents and child alike, brought by disability, and raises uncomfortable but
necessary questions about the ethics of parental choice.

As with Compensation Crazy, Designer Babies considers the relationship between
“technical” innovations and social constructions of what is, and is not,
acceptable. Therefore, whilst some disabled activists are opposed to the new technology,
others are exploring its use to select for specific disabilities. Tizzard criticises the
contemporary debate, which she claims is driven by speculation and fear rather than an
assessment of current genetic technologies. According to Tizzard, the idea that parents are
using the technology to “design” their children is trivialising the anguish that most parents
undergo when opting for the treatment. Inflated fears of genetic experimentation have resulted
in increasingly strict regulation, which constrains the potential advancement of this
science. Just as developments in law and medicine influence behaviour, so do cultural norms
modify science, a thesis which exemplifies this series’ ability to integrate arguments from
science and sociology to illuminating and challenging effect.

 


 

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