The Kiddy Pool: Fearful and Wonderful Genes

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I’m not that into aliens. It’s nothing personal, but I prefer science fiction that stays a bit closer to home. Take Gattaca, for instance. The 1997 film features subtly spectacular performances by Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law as they grapple with a world where genetic determinism and biometrics reign supreme. There are two kinds of people in this world: the genetically-designed “valids” and the “faith births” tellingly labeled “in-valids.” In this culture, reproducing without genetically enhancing your offspring means relegating your child to a lifetime of second-class citizenship. Enter Ethan Hawke, whose character defies the odds, achieves his dreams, etc. Except that instead of being hokey, the story plays out with suspense and a real sense of sacrifice for all of the main characters.

Gattaca wrestles in interesting and important ways with issues of genetic determinism, chance, and choice. We are more, the movie reminds us, than the sum of our DNA, a fact explained in breathtaking detail in Psalm 139. I can’t help but think about this secular sci-fi flick and its ancient Hebrew echo in light of new blood tests that predict fetal sex at 7 weeks. That testing takes place significantly earlier and with much less invasiveness than typical assessments (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/health/10birth.html). It’s also expensive, not usually covered by insurance, and unregulated by the FDA.

Doctors and researches tout this test as an early-screening mechanism for genetic deficiencies and diseases that tend to run along gender lines. They also caution that these tests, often self-administered by expectant mothers, pose potential for gender selection. To make that point clearer, it means that companies are opting not to sell the tests in countries where strong gender bias exists because of the increased risk for abortion. I can understand the desire to know a baby’s sex, for everyday issues like planning a nursery and choosing a name as well as preparing for more serious risks like diseases. Yet I also realize that choosing to have a child, designer baby or otherwise, is always-already an act of faith. We’re all faith births, because no test, no matter how sophisticated, can predict who or what we become; that’s a story that plays out over a lifetime of chance and choice, determination and circumstance. It’s a story known in full by the one in whose image we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and I wonder what would happen if more of us took it on faith that maybe He creates better than we do.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Sherry

    What a wonderful concept of Faith Births! It’s hard for Americans to imagine or understand that “It’s a Girl” are some of the three hardest words for parents to ever here. The consequences are too often deadly. I pray the globe would have their eyes opened to see the beauty in all of God’s creations…boy or girl. For all sexes were created as God’s image bearers.


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