This weekend I watched the movie “Gattaca.” For
those of you who may not be familiar, “Gattaca” is a movie depicting a future
in which everyone’s genetic past, present, and future is open for scrutiny. The
vast majority of people exist as a result of artificial selection and
manipulation of genes at or before conception.  I had watched the movie in
the past, but in light of everything we have discussed in class this semester I
came away with a few new insights. 

The first response I have regarding this movie is
the social implications of an exposure and manipulation of genes. In the world
of Gattaca, genes determine your stake in life the moment you are born—unless
you are the main character, Vincent Freeman, who discovers a way around the
system. Vincent is prevented from pursuing his dream of going into space
because of a congenital heart condition that he retained because he is one of
the last people to have been born naturally without any genetic intervention.
In watching this movie, I was a little disturbed to realize how easily this
kind of discrimination could occur in our current society. Just since I first
watched this movie 5 years ago, the scene of genetics and its place in society
has dramatically changed. 

When I first saw the film, I was only vaguely
aware of how genetics could be used and of the genetic tests available. Now, I
hear of new genetic discoveries every day. My own family has discovered we
carry a gene for breast cancer. Every other television series includes a
character struggling with a genetic disease, from Huntington’s on “House” to
Achondroplasia on “Little People Big World.” The problem is, as of today, we
have the ability to screen for thousands of disease-causing genes but have very
little ability to treat them once they are diagnosed. Fortunately, laws have
been developed in the recent past to prevent insurance companies from
discriminating against individuals who have tested positive for genetic
diseases, however there are always loopholes and discrimination is still possible.
What the movie points out is the danger of exponentially increasing our ability
to diagnose genetic traits without increasing our ability to help people with
these conditions. While we can identify individuals who carry genes that
predispose for cancers, from the BRCA genes that cause breast cancer to
mutations in P53 that cause just about every cancer imaginable, we can do
little more than carefully watch individuals and attempt to treat their cancers
at very early stages. We can test fetuses for genetic syndromes from down’s
syndrome to cystic fibrosis to, but by the time we diagnose them they are
already present in the child and offer no positive treatment options—leaving
parents to decide between aborting or having a child who will live with limited
capability to care for himself (down’s) or who will struggle for all of his 30
years of life to not suffocate from a buildup of fluid in his lungs (cystic
fibrosis). The dangerous precipice we are hinging on is that of accepting that
we cannot treat or change these conditions and attempting to react to it as
society has in the movie—by discounting the imperfect individuals and giving
their liberties to those who are deemed more genetically valuable. 

Fortunately, our society is still fighting to
retain its ethical duty to people, regardless of their genetic make-up.
However, the movie—in which society has forgotten this duty—works to make an
argument for the limitations of genetic testing. Through a parallel between
Vincent and his brother, Anton, the movie demonstrates genetics’ inability to
account for some of the most valuable and unmatchable human characteristics of
passion, determination, and faith. Whereas Vincent is a “God Child,” whose
genetics were determined by chance, his brother’s genes were modified and
perfected. However, in a scene revisiting their childhood, the movie shows the
brothers compete to see who can swim the farthest out into the ocean. Vincent
wins, and ultimately saves Anton from drowning. When Anton discovers that
Vincent has been cheating the system to achieve his dream, the two fall back
into the same competition and once again Vincent wins, saving Anton. In
response to Anton’s question as to how in the world Vincent, with his genetic
heart condition, is able to swim faster and stronger than Anton, who is
supposed to be genetically superior, Vincent responds: “I never saved anything
for the swim back.” Ultimately Vincent’s passion and determination to overcome
his shortcomings make him more powerful than his brother, who always relied on
his genetic perfection to get him by and never learned to struggle for

With relation to this class, the movie
demonstrates the danger of using technology to replace the natural side of
humanity. The society’s preoccupation with breaking down every component of
human beings’ existence makes them forget the non-technical, innate part of
what it means to be human. As Vincent demonstrates, to be human means to bend
circumstances to your advantage—not to create circumstances within which to operate.
We use technology to enhance our natural existence, but must struggle to avoid
using technology to replace our natural lives. 

I am left with just a couple of questions:

1. Do you fear that society will lose its grip on
the developments being made in science each day? Or do you believe we will be
able to adapt to control the changes being made?

2. Do you think there is a line to be drawn
between which diseases should be screened for versus which should be left to
chance? For example, should there be a difference between screening for a
disease you can treat and screening for one that almost certainly means death
for the individual in question?

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