Gattaca is a film regarding not only the troubling implications of excessive gene therapy, but also how it could be used in a sort of dystopian society where your genetic profile divides you into different castes. This society is one in which enough money can buy you the ideal designer child not only free of genetic defects but also with superior physical attributes. The main character is one of the few people born without genetic tampering. He is not expected to live very long as he has a congenital heart defect, but he has a dream to become an astronaut, one which he can never attain. The sort of funny thing about this is that someone in his condition would be unable to become an astronaut today, not only due to his heart problems but also his myopia. Regardless he is subject to genetic discrimination, because he has these problems he is considered a low class citizen. Another character, named Jerome, is meant to have the best genetic profile ever created and is an all-star swimmer. Even though he has been designed to be the best, he only takes second in a swimming competition. This being too much to bear, of course, leads to him attempting suicide. He manages to only paralyze himself from the waist down. The main character Vincent is then able to buy his “identity”, by increasing his height, using contacts matching Jerome’s eye color and also obtaining blood, urine and tissue samples to pass any genetic tests.
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Vincent is now an imposter, and although the legal ramifications would not be too extreme, if he was found out the social repercussions would be monumental. He is shirking all of the social mores set up by this society of genetic castes. He quickly obtains a job at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation through only a urine test, because his fake genes are so impressive. Vincent then proceeds to eventually achieve his goal of becoming an astronaut and leaves for Saturn’s moon, Titan. Jerome on the other had ends up committing suicide using an incinerator in his house, wearing his silver medal, as the rocket takes off. The irony of this whole movie is that Vincent who was seen as a second class citizen due to his genetic makeup was able to achieve his dreams through sheer determination and force of will. But, Jerome who had been groomed to be almost some sort of ubermensch, failed, despite his genetics.
The thing that makes this movie really interesting and applicable today is that some of these genetic screening processes already exist today. And it doesn’t seem entirely unfeasible that most if not all of these genetic therapy processes will be possible in the next ten to twenty years. Now I do not believe that our society will fall into the complete dystopia that was the case in the movie, but at the same time most people today are so vain that they would probably dump some money into genetically purifying their children. So although we may not fall into an absolute caste system based on genetics, certain parts of genetic screening could be applied to facets of our everyday lives that may have slightly malicious consequences. Imagine having to go through a genetic screening in order to apply for health insurance. If you had markers for too many genetic defects the insurance company may see you as an unnecessary risk and reject you. In which case how could you be expected to pay for all of your own medical expenses.
If there is any blame to be assigned to anyone for the state of the society in the film, it is to the citizens in that society who allowed things to get so out of hand. I could see the government running propaganda campaigns attempting to make the genetic purity of the nation the way to a better tomorrow. But, the way that everyone would have had to have bought this idea and allow the government and the corporations to run away with such a concept is insane. It’s not entirely unheard of though, in Nazi Germany genetic purity of the Arian race was paramount among everyone and the one extreme that the movie did not go to was that instead of just being discriminated against people who were seen with “inferior genes” were executed. Gattaca basically demonstrates a soft version of eugenics. Even though you are seen as having defective genes, you are still allowed to live, just not to the extent that the more genetically superior people are. I suppose that a lot of blame could be put on whoever the insane person that was put into power who was trying to push these ideals, but then again in a republic the blame falls back on the people.
The general message of Gattaca is that it’s not so much what your born into but how much you’re willing to strive to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals. So if policies like these do come into place hopefully people would see this as a cautionary tale. Like I said earlier, we’re probably not too far off from being able to completely genetically engineer a child, the strange thing about having a genetically engineered child is that, at that point is it even your child? Like sure you care for it and birthed it but, it carries none of your genes. It leads to a perversion of the prime directive of life, to carry on one’s own genes. The other takeaway from the movie is that while genetic screening is not in and of itself evil, and is actually a major medical advancement that can lead to much healthier lives for people. But when taken in a direction such as it was taken in the film it can lead to discrimination and prejudice based off of things that are out of anyone’s control.
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As a cautionary tale Gattaca does evoke some ideas for what could be done to prevent such things from happening. It should be insured that all genetic screening information remain private, only between the medical professionals and the patients. I’m pretty sure that there are laws already in place to prevent genetic information from becoming public. The popular genetic screening service 23andme used to give out medical information from genetic samples, including markers and health risk factors to people who requested screenings. This is no longer done, because it could involve a serious breach in confidentiality in addition to possibly unnecessarily scaring people into thinking they had something seriously wrong with them. Medical genetic screenings should only ever be done by medical personnel with the express purpose of helping the patient. Screening to see if your child is going to be the next Usain Bolt is not only not what the purpose of these screenings is or should be, but also is just unethical because of the standards that that child would be held to in life. Much like Jerome, who was meant to become the best and most athletic swimmer but only took second in the competition. Where normally second place is still an incredible achievement, in this scenario where the person is meant to be the best, second is seen as a failure.
Gattaca is a story set not far into the future, and pretty soon it will be set in the present. Genetic screenings, while having their place in medicine can also be very volatile if their usage expands beyond that. Using genetic screening to get ahead of the ball, so to speak, on medical issues is a very valuable asset to doctors and patients alike. However, using someone’s genetics as a way to screen for a job or healthcare benefits or in any other fashion that impacts where their place is in society is not only scary but exceptionally unethical.
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