Department of English

Fall 2010 Edition

Consumerism: The Future of Parenting

Kori Cox
Argumentative 2010 1st Place
Professor: Bryce Christensen

In the hospital room the baby cries and the doctor places its tiny body in the new mother's arms. How does one describe this child and the meaning of its birth? Many people would call the beginning this new life a gift of nature, or even of God. However, new advancements in genetics are beginning to change this perception of children. Technologies such as genetic diagnosis and selective implantation techniques are precursors to the expected gene modification of the future (Schmidt 1). Each of these technologies plays a part in a cultural movement that essentially allows parents to choose their children. Although some parents across the United States herald these advancements as the cure for society's ills, others who study bioethics must disagree. The practice of choosing and designing children for various purposes results in an attitude of parenting that is rapidly becoming a form of consumerism that transforms children from natural gifts into products. In truth, new expectations of children, unethical measures of their value, and troubling ideas of their purpose are crippling our culture.

To understand these detrimental changes in parental attitudes, one must first consider the basic difference between a gift and a product. Compare the meaning of two sewing machines. One machine is a gift from a beloved great grandmother, a family heirloom. This valuable machine was the first of its kind with a foot pedal that requires motion to operate the needle. Now consider sewing machine number two. Equipped with the latest technology, researchers designed this highly efficient machine for a specific purpose. This is not a gift, but a product. Thus, the consumer who purchases this machine expects it to operate only as advertised. Obviously, the value of this machine lies in direct correlation to the ability it has to produce the desired results.

People view gifts and products in ways that differ greatly. A wise consumer will compare the strengths and weaknesses of various products and, finally, make a purchase with full faith that the new product will satisfy his or her needs. Unfortunately, genetic advancements tempt many adults to approach parenting in a similar manner. Scientists in this genetic era are developing technologies that may persuade parents to look at their posterity with a view that is alarmingly different from those of previous generations. Parents are beginning to view children as products instead of gifts. In the past, society felt an attitude of appreciation for infants, as is common with any gift. Glenn McGee remembers that the beauty of a child was once a quality beyond measurement and assessment when he describes an infant as, "beautiful and appropriate exactly because it represents the particular union of two particular people" (1). Thus, a child was not only a gift, but a specialized representation of the unique combination of parental characteristics. Such an extraordinary gift deserves appreciation. Parents show true love when they accept children as they are, appreciating the individuality of their strengths and weaknesses. When parents accept only a child with certain characteristics, selfishness replaces gratitude. As genetic advancements race forward, parents with consumer-like expectations fail to grasp the attitude of gratitude symbolized in the appreciation of great-grandmother's precious sewing machine. When society loses the sense of awe associated with birth, it threatens not only compassionate parental attitudes, but also the self-worth of a child.

Technology predicted for the near future would allow parents to choose the intelligence, athletic abilities, and musical talents of their children. Of course, some parents will argue that new genetic technologies will serve as an important tool in caring for a child. These supporters of enhancement suggest that genetically improving children is an essential part of parental love. Some, such as Savulescu, even claim that such enhancement is an ethical responsibility: "Once technology affords us with the power to enhance our and our children's lives, to fail to do so will be to be responsible for the consequences" (3). Statements such as this convince many parents that this alluring idea of better children is a wonderful opportunity. However, problems arise as definitions of "better" begin to conflict with one another. When parents try to define a "good" child, they reveal the evils of a consumer-oriented attitude. Consumers can certainly analyze the price, quality, and performance of a sewing machine and label it a "good" product; however, children display a variety of attitudes, personalities, and other characteristics, which an equation cannot accurately measure. The President's Council on Bioethics, created by President George W. Bush, felt it necessary to inquire, "What, exactly, is a good or better child? … Is it a child with better character? If so, having which traits or virtues? More obedient or more independent? More sensitive or more enduring? More daring or more measured? Better behaved or more assertive?" (Kass et al 28). As the members of the President's Council imply, more than one definition of a good child exists. This is why parents who try to limit the idea of a good child to one definition inevitably leave out several admirable traits.

Parents searching for a "good product" will overlook the value of diversity. Parents should not compare children to the identical rows of product on a super market shelf, but instead, appreciate their differences. McGee observes, "A scientifically styled 'perfect society,' stratified by genes, makes little sense in a world where genetic variability turns out to be a virtue" (par. 6). McGee voices the opinions of many concerned bioethicists when he speaks about unique traits that some may leave out of a "perfect society." For instance, some careers require a competitive and assertive personality, while others call for a compassionate, patient nature. McGee continues in his argument when he insists, "Genetic diversity has tremendous value because it provides the opportunity for those of many hereditary backgrounds to employ differing approaches towards maximization of the potential of a given environment" (par. 27). McGee points out a truth that encompasses every aspect of daily life. Any team, group, organization, or personal relationship will benefit from the balancing effects of diversity. The loss of this diversity would impact not only the interwoven connections of society, where each diverse person adds his or her unique contribution, but also the self-image of individual children.

Baroness Warnock is one researcher who is concerned about how genetic technology will affect a child's view of himself or herself. She says, "It is difficult to foresee the difference it would make to someone's sense of responsibility and self-image if he had to think that other people, his parents, had decided that this is what he should be" (1). When parents choose genes for their child that are specific to an aptitude or career, they burden him or her with a pre-determined future. Certainly a child in these circumstances would feel an overwhelming pressure to perform. After all, when consumers use a product that does not give desired results, they classify it as worthless and dispose of it. Similarly, children might feel worthless when parents hold consumer-like expectations of them, thus limiting the possibilities of a child's future.

How could parents claim to know what genes their child would need? What would happen if, in their narrow-mindedness, they failed to see all of the possibilities? When parents have the ability to choose the defining traits of their offspring, will their choices of "good" genes reflect a "good" life for their child? One researcher, Maureen Junker-Kenny, contemplated this question and concluded that parents who use genetic engineering have children who must endure "a forced submission to another person's idea of happiness" (4). Certainly, such a submission would be detrimental to individuals and society. One example comes from the story of a boy named George who was born nearly four hundred years ago. George's father wanted a good life for his infant son and felt a future career in law would certainly satisfy this requirement. Fortunately, in 1865, George Frideric Handel was born with only the genes bestowed by the miracle of nature. Eventually, Handel blossomed into a successful musician, became England's most successful composer, wrote the famed Oratorio Messiah, and left a legacy that extended far beyond his father's law school dreams (Kamien 142). Handel was a child who found success contrary to his parent's predictions. Fortunately, when they saw his aptitude for music and composition they did not expect him to attend law school. While George's father could only plan an educational path for his son, parents in the future may have the ability to choose genes for their child that would point toward a specific career. Parents who use genetic enhancement create rigid plans for their children, crushing natural talents and abilities.

Defenders of bioengineering would be quick to point out that parents are already creating high expectations for their children. One must admit that, even now, parents are taking advantage of resources that promise to increase the success of their children, such as expensive schooling or private lessons in sports, music, or dance (Sandel 51). If parents intend to purchase expensive ballet lessons for a daughter, why not give her an advantage by engineering her body with long slender legs, balance, and grace? If personal tutors and resume builders would get a son into a prestigious university, why deprive him of the benefits that come with a higher level of intelligence? Bioethicists like Michael Sandel see the legitimacy of such questions. He admits,

The defenders of enhancement are right to this extent: Improving children through genetic engineering is similar in spirit to the heavily managed, high-pressure child-rearing practices that have become common these days. But this similarity does not vindicate genetic enhancement. On the contrary, it highlights a problem with the trend toward hyper-parenting. (52)

As Sandel explains, the fact that overbearing parenting practices are already common in today's society does not make them constructive or even acceptable. For example, some parents expect kindergarten children to not only perform in athletic events, but also demonstrate a passionate drive and competitive spirit. Other parents may urge, prod, and press children to become excellent musicians and performers. Unfortunately, this type of oppressive and obsessive parenting provides fertile soil in which a harmful consumerism will grow. While many children already experience intense pressure from expectations of "hyper-parents," new genetic technologies will prove to be a new ultimate in parental control.

Although these horrors of future attitudes are frightening, present actions are already chilling. Parents are now able, through selective implantation, to choose the gender of their children. As Junker-Kenny states, "It is the 'intention,' not the outcome of the gene selection that hurts the sense of self possession" (6). The fact that parents made a decision between male and female proves a troubling point. A conditional love and acceptance has replaced a parent's unending love and appreciation for the gift of a child. It seems implausible that a child could be confident in any his or her defining characteristics when the parents were so particular about gender. These parenting choices would put pressure on a child to fit into the mold that the parents have created. Thus, it is obvious that parental attitudes, affected by consumerism, have changed already, creating a new culture in parenting.

As a bioethicist and a parent, Glenn McGee shares a troubling thought concerning this new culture. He worries because "parents that choose traits as calculative consumers might come to devalue the essential connection of relatedness and sameness in family relationships" (1). Parents who look from a consumer standpoint will lose appreciation for the intrinsic characteristics that are valuable in a gift. A gift leaves no room for action; in contrast, products invite a preference and a choice. An opportunity to choose is an opportunity for control. Some realize that the relationship between parents and children would turn rather asymmetrical as parents gain this greater power (Junker-Kenny 2). Greater parental authority creates additional problems.

As parents obtain the power of a consumer, they also begin to judge as a consumer. These parents begin to define the value of a child as they would a product; they lose sight of intrinsic value and look for traits that they link with specific results and outcomes. One of these seemingly necessary traits is the ability to compete. Essentially, parents have discarded the beauty of intrinsic value for the alluring competitiveness of intelligence and physical ability. One group of concerned parents admitted, "Our society tends to value persons based on performance, knowledge, education, and the ability to earn income" (King 9). Although it is necessary for society to place some value on these characteristics, parents must avoid attitudes that determine the entire value children by their abilities to compete with one another.

People may not realize how placing such a great value on competitiveness can be detrimental to society. Those supporting enhancement would agree with Julian Savulescu, who claims that parents are morally obligated to enhance their children. To prove his point he provides an example that illustrates how the breed of a dog correlates with its survival. He insists, "No matter what the turf, a Doberman would tear a Corgi to pieces" (1). Although Savulescu uses this analogy to support enhancement, the fact that he actually uses a dogfight to represent human existence serves as evidence that competitiveness leads to an abased way of life. Savulescu's idea of achieving enhanced people only applies to those who view life as a "dogfight." This tendency toward competitiveness neglects the deeper meaning and value of children and is a significant factor in the parental turn towards consumerism.

Certain cases, such as those when parents use a genetic diagnosis to determine which embryos are free of genetic disorder, may not seem to have any relevance to consumerism or competitiveness. This recent research, which has matched specific genes with certain disabilities, appears to promote only positive outcomes. For instance, genetic technology can now be used to identify diseases such as Down's Syndrome, Tay-Sachs Disease, Cystic Fibrosis and Huntington's Disease (Baird 2). Sarah Stoller asserts the seemingly obvious fact that parents have the obligation to utilize these technologies to choose the better child (1). However, within the word "better," the present ethical argument comes to life. These technologies, though helpful, serve as a gateway to additional consumer-oriented views. For example, parents begin to take the position that children without genetic disorders are "better" or of a greater value. In response, Maureen Junker-Kenny points out, "This stance actually promotes genetic enhancement as the way forward without ever questioning the cultural prioritizing of competitiveness over any other ideal of a shared and sustainable life" (14). It may be obvious that children with disabilities are less competitive. However, as Junker-Kenny clarifies, competitiveness cannot define the worth of a child.

One excellent example of this concept intrinsic value comes from the experiences of a teacher whose pupil had disabilities. This teacher told the parent of the disabled child, "Your son has made my class easy to teach. When your son walks into the classroom, the competition is gone, the bickering is gone, the fighting is gone. He comes in and he brings love, he brings warmth and acceptance" (qtd. in King 9). Ironically, this child was valued, not for his ability to compete, but for the innocence that allowed him to dissolve that rivalry. People who recognize children as a gift realize that they can possess characteristics that are more important than competitiveness.

Families of genetically disabled children tell us "these children have taught us that there are so many more inherently important values, which have shaped us as a family" (King 9). Intrinsic qualities have the ability to outweigh the perceive importance of competition. One group of researchers proves this point with the results of a careful study of families with disabled children: "Over time, parents may experience changes in ways of seeing their child, themselves and the world. These new perspectives may encompass profound rewards, enrichments, and the appreciation of the positive contributions made by people with disabilities" (King 2). Unfortunately, consumerism obscures society's view of children and encourages parents to abandon these intrinsic ideals in favor of competitive characteristics.

Another special circumstance, which initially appears to have positive effects, involves the creation of a child donor. In cases such as this, in-vitro fertilization and tissue testing give parents the power to choose an embryo that would become a donor for a diseased sibling (Lotz 2). These pre-determined donors have been nicknamed 'saviour siblings' as their sole purpose is to save their disease stricken brother or sister. It would be difficult to accuse these parents of frivolity. Indeed, they have left height and eye color behind for much weightier matters, such as blood types and tissue compatibilities. However, even though parents of savior siblings begin with the best of intentions, another type of consumerism can be found. While one child is benefiting, another has become a product that differs from any previously mentioned. Mianna Lotz uncovers this form of consumerism as she states, "No person ought to be brought into existence solely for the purpose of fulfilling another's needs or interests or bestowing benefits upon them" (2). This statement is applicable to both the 'saviour sibling' and the genetically enhanced child. Though each child experiences differing circumstances, they will share parallel predicaments. Both will question their value and suffer a lack of confidence in parental love. As Lotz points out, neither child should be forced to endure these ill effects of consumerism. Thus, parents must approach even seemingly helpful procedures with caution, taking care to avoid the ever-present traps of consumerism.

As scientists reveal more genetic technology, parents lose sight of the giftedness of a child when they overlook the value of diversity and the wonder of natural talents. Children are no longer born for their own sake but to fulfill a parent's fantasy, live on the cutting edge of competition, or, in some cases, to save the life of another. These new unethical definitions of the purpose, expectation, and worth of children stand as proof that consumerism has expanded beyond the supermarket. The age of genetics introduces parents as customers, genetic engineers as manufacturers, and sadly, children as products. If members of society allow trends within genetic technology to continue in their corrupt patterns, parenting will inevitably become a form of oppressive consumerism.

Works Cited
Baird, Stephen L. "Designer Babies: Eugenics Repackaged or Consumer Options?" Technology Teacher 66.7 (2007): 12-16. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Sept. 2010.
Junker-Kenny, Maureen. "Genetic Enhancement as Care or as Domination? The Ethics of Asymmetrical Relationships in the Upbringing of Children." Journal of Philosophy of Education 39.1 (2005): 1-17. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.
Kamien, Roger. Music: An Appreciation. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.
King, G. A., et al. "A Qualitative Investigation of Changes in the Belief Systems of Families of Children with Autism or Down Syndrome." Child: Care, Health & Development 32.3 (2006): 353-369. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.
Lotz, Mianna. "Procreative Reasons-Relevance: On the Moral Significance of Why We Have Children." Bioethics 23.5 (2009): 291-299. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.
McGee, Glenn. "Parenting In An Era of Genetics." Hastings Center Report 27.2 (1997): 16. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.
Kass, Leon, et al. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, A Report by the President's Council on Bioethics. Washington D.C.: President's Council on Bioethics, 2003. Print.
Sandel, Michael J. The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007. Print.
Savulescu, Julian. "New Breeds of Humans: The Moral Obligation to Enhance." Reproductive BioMedicine Online 10 (2005): 36-39. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.
Schmidt, Eric B. "The Parental Obligation to Expand a Child's Range of Open Futures When Making Genetic Trait Selections for Their Child." Bioethics 21.4 (2007): 191-197. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.
Stoller, Sarah E. "Why We Are Not Morally Required to Select the Best Children: A Response to Savulescu." Bioethics 22.7 (2008): 364-369. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.
Baroness Warnock. "Genetics and Morality." The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.