There’s been a fair bit of hoo-hah about designer babies in the news lately and today I find myself editing a piece for our upcoming issue of h+ Magazine by Michael Anissimov that I think fairly well sums it up. Unfortunately, I was sitting in front of the TV set while editing it and it warped my mind.
Yes, like so many Americans (and so few intelligent ones), I find myself thinking about the Octumom.
Since many of my fellow longevity advocates like to think about species like the turtle that live for outrageously long periods of time (theoretically for as long as the planet can sustain its life), and like to imagine that we could somehow absorb or adapt some of those characteristics, why shouldn’t some passionate breeders yearn towards that day when they can play termite queen?
Nadya Suleman achieved human birth history by bearing 8 children at once as the result of in-vitro fertilization. Since her doctor implanted six embryos and allowed the eight resulting fetuses to survive and be birthed, the story – while has played mostly as soap opera in the tabloid media – has carried a subtext involving the abuse of a medical technology that we have become accustomed to – but if we had not, would seem as science fiction-y and transhuman-y as many breeding issues that lay on the immediate horizon. More isn’t always better, but if self-selected use of technology to push back the biological goal posts is any criteria, Octumom — as a world-champion biological mother — has had her performance dramatically enhanced.
So when Dr. Jeff Steinberg — whose Fertility Clinic was going to offer “designer babies” before closing the program down due to media attention — went on The O’Reilly Factor to get his fair share of abuse, he gallantly defended himself, mostly in terms of preventing genetic disorders but also in terms of parental choice and reproductive rights. At the end of the sequence, Steinberg relates that this sort of medical technology has never been abused, and O’Reilly responds, “One word, doctor: octuplets.” Steinberg then replies, “That’s one in a million.” A typically self-satisfied O’Reilly then declared himself the winner of the discourse and moved on to the next segment.
Medical birthing technology may not be the only transhuman-oriented trope that can be attached to Octumom. It’s rumored that she also had plastic surgery to make herself look like Angelina Jolie… so we have body mod, mutable identity, and obsession with a virtual character (Angelina Jolie, of course, is presumably still real, but she’s essentially virtual in terms of the way her fans relate to her). I don’t see this so much as the dark side of radical technological evolution as just the weird side. I mean, yes… you do have people screaming about the taxpayers having to pay for her babies, but compared to billions of dollars in banker bonuses or Paul Bremer running around Iraq with satchels filled with $4 billion dollars in cash, Octumom is a bargain – well worth the price in entertainment dollars.