It’s October and the Center for Practical Bioethics is about to kickoff our fall film series: Science, Medicine &Unintended Consequences. Our first entry in the three-film series is Gattaca (1997), staring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law. Directed by Andrew Niccol, Gattaca is set in a near-future where reproductive eugenics is available to would-be parents. There we find a stratified society, in which opportunity is reserved for those with tailored genes (and presumably parents rich enough to pay for them), even while genetic discrimination is technically illegal.
The movie gives shape to the various anxieties that accompany discussion of genetic engineering in humans. Given the ability to identify appealing genetic traits, what would happen if we designed our offspring? Given the knowledge of how our genes will affect our future health, what would happen if that information were available to potential employers. We see both the effects it could have on our society; regular genetic screening, structural discrimination, but also the effects it could have on individuals; parents alienated from their children, crises of identity and inadequacy.
Overall, the world of Gattaca is depicted as clearly dystopic, but twenty years after the film’s production consumer genetic screening products are finding their way into the markets, and powerful genetic editing technologies are being used on human cells for the first time. I don’t believe that these technologies will necessarily lead us to a dystopian future, but movies like Gattaca remind us that they can cast long shadows. Careful consideration, a robust ethical framework, and broad-based discussion are essential to successfully identifying and avoiding the risks associated with emerging technologies.
On that note, I hope that everyone enjoys our screening of Gattaca and the discussion that will follow!