It’s not every day you get a chance to skip down to your “local bioethicist” for a chat about the latest debates in genomic science. But as one of the unique perks of living in Rochester, 507 did just that. Dr. Megan Allyse, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Ethics at Mayo Clinic sat down with us to talk genomics, pop culture, and the current health disparities that may make our world more Gattaca-esque than any specter of ‘designer babies’ ever could.
Gattaca is a dystopian film about a future society where “perfect” babies are conceived by genetic manipulation creating inequalities based on genetic discrimination. Dr. Allyse will be joining genetic counselor, Teresa Kruisselbrink from the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine, on July 21 at the Rochester Public Library as part of the Science at the Cinema event. The event will feature a film screening of the 1997 film Gattaca followed by a community conversation on the ethical and social implications of a genomic world.
How would you describe your work?
My work sits at the intersection of women’s health, reproductive rights, and political sociology. The sociology looks at how culture and politics can influence science policy and medical practice. I also have a separate area of work that focuses on how healthcare is delivered on the ground.
Why are genomics and reproduction such a subject of debate right now?
We’re getting to a point where we can get incredible amounts of information about the genetic make-up of a fetus through prenatal screening. We now have the ability to better estimate whether a fetus may be at a higher risk of a genetic condition. And we’re closer and closer to being able to do something about it before the baby is born or at birth. This is both wonderful and potentially problematic. There are key ethical concerns about the way that information might be used, how it’s communicated, and who has access to it.
Are there any myths about genomics you’d love to bust?
Designer babies becoming a fad. Genomics is an insanely complicated system. Sure, there are certain things that are controlled by one gene that we could turn off like Tay-Sachs or Huntington’s disease. Being a good person, however, has nothing to do with your genes.
People are worried that we’re going to start being able to pick and choose traits like skin color, eyes, hair, and height. Well, the genetic science doesn’t support that and neither does the sociology. All anyone really wants is a happy, healthy baby.
The problem comes when you start redefining what it means to be “healthy”. With or without the technology, every time you have children they are whole new people. We need to spend less time worrying about designer babies and more time worrying about raising good human beings.
You’ll be part of a community conversation about the film Gattaca and the impact of genomics on society. Why is Gattaca such a relevant pop culture film?
Gattaca tells a very simple “future of eugenics” story that makes it easier for people to connect to these issues. For those of us who live inside those issues every day, we’re thrilled that people are taking an interest and starting the conversation. But these stories can often trade nuance for accessibility. We need to continue the dialogue in a way that moves beyond simple narratives.
One of the most legitimate concerns about designer babies or a Gattaca future is about further exacerbating health disparities. We already have a very unequal system. Today, we know that Latinas and African-Americans have much higher rates of maternal mortality. Black women are more likely to die of breast cancer. People already get different standards of medical care based on a range of social and economic factors. The upcoming event is a great way to combine entertainment with a deeper public discussion. It’s very important for us to continually have these conversations about science and what it means for our present and future as a society.