Gattaca – an unsettling scenario

Movies can be incredibly useful to promote the debate regarding bioethical issues. Here a review on “Gattaca” a 1997 American science fiction film that addresses a lot of bioethical themes.

Human enhancement has been a frequent subject in popular culture. Most likely the best known movie dealing with the topic is “Limitless” showing captivating possibilities of brain-tweaking.

Over ten years before “the Limitless” was produced, another film was shot, taking a darker stance on the enhancement of the human body. "Gattaca", the production, directed by Andrew Niccol and nominated for Oscar, paints a fairly grim picture. It looks at the effects of genetic engineering on human beings simply in terms of its potential for creating a caste system.

The movie is set in the not-too-distant-future, in a world obsessed with human perfection to the point that genetic engineering is the norm, resulting in an unfortunate social dichotomy. The main character, Vincent is one of the last "natural" babies born into a sterile, genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and disease likelihood are ascertained at birth. Myopic and due to die at 30, he has no chance of a career in a society that now discriminates against your genes, instead of your gender, race or religion.

In the times of complete genome sequencing and powered exoskeletons, the science in “Gattaca” seems possible. If parents could order “perfect” babies, would they? Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or order up the make and model you wanted?

While some may be frightened by these prospects and the idea of enhancing technology, others might be tempted to run full speed ahead into the world of brain enhancements. The technologies with which humans can transform their bodies are major and varied, and many are already being employed; should enhancement of the brain really be off limits?

In a review of the film for the journal "Nature Genetics", molecular biologist Lee M. Silver stated that "Gattaca is a film that all geneticists should see if for no other reason than to understand the perception of our trade held by so many of the public-at-large". Surely something worth knowing for the NERRI consortium as well.