A recent press release I received got me thinking about how much we really care about kids? The press alert came from the Coalition to Stop Designer Babies, which is organizing internationally to oppose efforts by some scientists and would-be parents who want to overturn legal bans and prohibitions on Human Genetic Modification (HGM).
A so-called designer baby is defined as “an infant whose genes or other cellular components have been altered by practitioners at the embryo or pre-embryo stage, ostensibly for the purpose of avoiding passing on genetic diseases, or making babies that are smarter, taller, or stronger,” according to the Humane Biotech organization.
Coalition spokesperson Dr. Daniel Papillon, a French scientist, notes that” There is no unmet medical need for this technology, but the risks are immense. … It would increase ableism and entrench social inequality.” Like other opponents of this technology, he notes that “HGM is the latest high-tech version of Eugenics,” the belief that the human race could be improved if reproduction was controlled and only those who were deemed worthy of being born or of reproducing should live or bear children. The movement advocated selective breeding and the elimination of those considered to be imperfect. Advocates ranged from Margaret Sanger to Adolf Hitler. Even Vermont practiced Eugenics. Between 1931 and 1941, about 200 people, mostly women, were sterilized in the state.
The idea of designer babies and perfect progeny smacks not just of social control but of affluence and exclusion. It illuminates the deep chasm between privilege and poverty, both of which speak to the deprivation of lives that might have been lived. Let’s not forget that eugenics was at the core of slavery and is still a threat in a world of growing fascism.
The idea of designer babies versus impoverished, marginalized children made me think of all the ways children throughout history, and children now in this country, have been damaged, degraded, and devalued, despite the rightwing devotion to fetuses. There are deeply disturbing examples of the abuse children of all ages experience, physically, emotionally, sexually and via neglect and exploitation.
Take, for example, the revelation revealed by the Houston Chronicle that Texas state troopers were told to push immigrant kids, even babies, back into the Rio Grande as they tried to survive crossing the river alone or with others. Or the fact that thousands of children are at risk of separation, abuse and neglect at the Mexico-US border, and that documented major abuse takes place in retention centers on the US side. Kids trapped in Mexico are sleeping in the streets where they are exposed to violence and abuse, as Save the Children and other organizations have pointed out. And those who make it to U.S. Customs and Border Protection report physical and psychological abuse, unsanitary and inhuman living conditions, isolation from family, extended periods of detention, and denial of access to legal and medical services, reported in a University of Chicago Law School report five years ago.
Sadly, the National Children’s Alliance reports that more than 600,000 children are abused in the United States each year, with children in the first year of their lives being 15 percent of all victims; more than a quarter of child maltreatment victims are under two years old. Nationally, neglect is the most common form of abuse. What does that say about who we are as a country?
What does this say? According to the Equal Justice Initiative eleven states have no minimum age for trying children as adults; some states allow children between ten and thirteen to be tried as adults, while children as young as eight have also been prosecuted as adults. Shockingly, the U.S. is the only country in the world where kids as young as thirteen have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, and until 2005 children were executed in the U.S.
Law enforcement and police brutality contribute to the abuse and criminalization of children ranging from kindergarteners to teenagers. Stories abound. In one state, an off-duty policeman placed his knee on a middle school child’s neck, while in another state, four
Black girls were arrested for not stopping young boys from fighting.
The stories are immensely disturbing. A child in kindergarten was arrested for picking a tulip at a bus stop. A12-year old was arrested for doodling at his desk. A nine-year-old was arrested, pepper sprayed and handcuffed for “acting like a child” when police were called to her school. These and other stories like them have been exposed by the Legal Defense Fund.
Now comes the exploitation of kids in the workplace, courtesy of Republican legislators who are happy to ignore labor laws. Lawmakers in several states want to let children work in hazardous workplaces, and to work longer hours on school nights, including serving alcohol in bars and restaurants as young as fourteen. The Economic Policy Institute revealed that ten states in the last two years have tried loosening child labor laws, while the Department of Labor reported this year that child labor violations have increased by nearly 70 percent. It’s Dickensian!
These tragic tales are the tip of the iceberg. They speak volumes to the level of child neglect that is rapidly being normalized in America. The big question is what are we going to do about it? That’s a good question to ask anyone running for office next year. As for designer babies, that’s a question for the wealthy who are wedded to privilege and perfection.
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Elayne Clift writes from Brattleboro, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com