Science fiction as a tool for genetic screening discussion in the public forum

Guest post by: Aidan Muirhead

The science fiction film GATTACA is based on the idea that preimplantation genetic diagnosis technology has the potential to turn society into a genetic hierarchy that many see as a dystopia. I aim to look into the history of such genetic screening, and how such technology is projected into the fictional future within the film. I will then examine the potential for science information, particularly in the health field, to be disseminated and interpreted based on fictional material. I will look at the research into the use of fiction to communicate science issues such as genetic determination or eugenics. I will then consider some of the current ethical concerns about the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis and the future of science fiction in this field.

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is a technology that was first established in 1990 (Hershberger and Pierce, 2010; Musters et al, 2010). It has since been used to screen embryos for genetic disorders. At present, there are over 50 disorders that can be checked for using PGD technology. The process involves a cell or a number of cells being removed from an embryo that is a few days old. These cells are then screened for a wide range of genetic disorders.

Such technology has given hope to many couples with high risk of having a child with a genetic disorder that wish to have children. It is also seen by many to be a better alternative than the prenatal genetic diagnosis and selective abortion (Kalfoglou et al., 2005).

In addition to the current uses for genetic screening, many have acknowledged the potential for preimplantation genetic diagnosis technology to be used in determining other characteristics of a child. At the moment, the only major non-medical trait that is widely screened for is sex. Such selection is not available in all countries. However, sex selection for medical reasons such as a sex being more predisposed to a genetic disorder, is available to most consumers of PGD technology.

It is the issue of sex selection that highlights some of the other potential concerns with preimplantation genetic diagnosis technology. We can already choose the sex of a baby, so it appears that the only limit to determining every aspect of a child through selection of the ‘best’ genes available is the technological or scientific knowledge of which genes affect which characteristics. Inherent in this issue is the availability of genes to begin with.

This limit is not readily addressed in the beginning of the film. The main character’s parents first have a child without the use of technology, and this child is perceived as deficient in his society. They then go to scientists when wanting a second child, in order to be able to select against some of the traits that their first child has. What is not discussed in depth at this point in the film is that only the full genetics of both parents is the limit of what is available to the parents in selecting the ‘perfect’ child.

Later in the film this issue becomes more obvious when a love interest develops between characters. Due to the advanced genetic screening technology available in the fictional future world, the characters are able to take a small sample of skin or hair from their potential mate and have it analysed. This analysis takes only seconds and allows the characters to see any deficiencies in their partner’s genetics, or what their partner would offer to the DNA pool of future offspring.

Also in the world within the film, the potential to have children through natural means in still available, although as mentioned above, not seen as ideal. This means that the whole society is turning to a scientific method of fertilization. This is interesting because the very nature of preimplantation genetic diagnosis means that it is a technology available prior to the implantation of embryos, and therefore not available to those seeking more ‘natural’ methods of conception. The shift towards scientific fertilization in the fiction may be reflecting a real shift towards technology, as revealed by the growing number of PGD users (Kafoglou et al., 2005).

Genetic diagnosis and screening in the film GATTACA have moved beyond selecting against genetic disorders and have moved onto creating a genetic hierarchy. In the film people have their DNA screened over and over again. As discussed above such screening has infiltrated the world of dating, but one’s DNA also acts as a swipe card in permitting access to buildings, and in determining how suitable one might be for a work position. Those with deficient DNA are left to do the menial tasks, while others with more ‘perfect’ DNA are permitted to work higher paying jobs, with perks such as space travel. As Weingart et al. (2003) state

“Scientific knowledge and its technological applications have been associated with both liberation and domination, with the power to control and the threat of being controlled, with human welfare and destruction, since antiquity.” (p.208).

Being controlled by science is a prominent theme in this film, and the potential for public fear needs to be analyzed, because the technologies used in GATTACA are not far from those available now.

The scientific concepts in this film are of course fictional, at least for the moment, but the potential for such ideas to influence public opinion of current technologies needs to be examined. In some cases science fiction shows a world that is potentially far out of reach, but even in 1997 when GATTACA was released PGD technologies were available. Therefore, one must look how science, particularly health related science, can be perceived and interpreted from fiction.

As Brodie et al. (2001) discuss in their analysis of health information presented and interpreted from the television show ER

“While viewers may not consciously watch fictional programs to learn about health information, cultivation theory suggests that health information presented in entertainment media could affect their ideas about health-related issues.” (p.192).

Even if the science presented in the film GATTACA is not retained, there is the potential for the ideas presented to alter opinions on modern preimplantation genetic diagnosis technologies and their uses.

Brodie et al. (2001) also discuss the potential for those who view fictional health programs because they are interested in the health issues have the potential to learn about the health topics depicted and then seek to raise such issues with their community and health professionals. The possibility that the science and technology presented in the film GATTACA could increase the public discourse on the topic of preimplantation genetic diagnosis or other such screening technologies could be either a positive or a negative.

What may well prove to be a negative is the idea that because of the fictional element of the science in GATTACA, that the audience may take all the possibilities outlined in the film seriously. Brodie et al. (2001) also discuss the importance of health information being “…communicated as accurately as possible…” (p.198), yet a film set in the future cannot achieve such aims.

Bates (2005) discusses the issues with assuming that audiences will perceive the messages presented uniformly when he says

“Because audiences take messages, edit and reorganize them, and produce new messages, top-down models of communication should be used with caution. Selecting a body of messages, and then assuming that the audience will believe these messages, is only one way of accessing public culture.” (p.50)

Yet even if the public audience of GATTACA does not believe all the messages in the film, the issues raised still have the potential to impact the discussion of the technologies presented. As Bates (2005) puts it “…sci-fi understandings of genetic technology can be as important to a scientific public culture as the actual science that is known. “ (p.49)

Many articles look at the themes of eugenics and genetic determination that are presented in science fiction. In the world as it is now these themes may seem more important than ever as we creep into a world where such ideas are no longer fiction.

Bates (2005) uses a focus group study to examine public understanding of genetics. In this study the film GATTACA is used many times by participants to highlight fears of eugenics. Within such thoughts is mentioned the fear that such technology would lead to a continuation of racism among many other discriminations.

The participants in this study drew on their interpretations of the issues and science in the film to express concerns about the potential of genetic engineering and a search for genetic perfection. And this is despite the fact the protagonist in GATTACA is shown to overcome the hierarchy in place.

Bates (2005) also touches on the dehumanizing elements of genetic engineering, which is a theme raised by other observations of genetics in science fiction. Weingart et al. (2003) also discuss this theme through the lack of the individual in Brave New World.

“Huxley’s dystopia, by contrast, has become a much more immediate prospect, due to the advances in biotechnology, molecular medicine, and reproductive technologies leading to the ethical dilemmas that are now prevalent in public discourse. It, too, echoes the myth of science invading human identity.” (p.281)

Such a statement is resonated in the comments Weingart et al. (2003) go on to make about the majority of movies depicting science with a distrust and uneasiness that they feel must reflect the public’s perception of science and scientists.

This uneasiness and distrust is also touched on by Back (1995) when he states

“Physically at least, the ultimate building blocks of the human body, genes in current language, are the most central and most intimate parts of a person; on the other hand, their exploration deals with questions of the nature of life and of human existence that touch forbidden or at least esoteric knowledge, which should be available only to a few.” (p.327)

Back (1995) continues his discussion of such sentiments in the Western world and the issues of power that scientific or technological control over genetics could raise. Weingart et al. (2003) also discuss science’s association with the unknown future, and how science becomes

“…the object of projections of utopias and dystopias. Science itself is often portrayed at a fictional state of development, just beyond its contemporary research fronts and technological achievements.” (p.286)

Back (1995) continues his discussion of Brave New World and the issues of genetic engineering by showing that such technology has massive societal impact by leaving very little space for the individual. It is not one person that is causing terror upon society, but rather a society that leaves no individual identity.

As Bates (2005) discusses, science fiction is created to speculate on the impact that technologies could have on society, and therefore it is of no surprise that genetic technology has been used in the genre.

Back (2005) discusses the potential social control that new science can offer, and Kirby (2003) speaks of the power of fictional film to give closure to scientific controversies. I feel both these issues can be addressed through the film GATTACA.

The film itself has the potential to raise fear and concern over genetic screening technologies. These fears and concerns in turn allow the wider public to address issues of genetics that may one day soon, and in fact maybe even today, become fact not fiction. When the film was released it may well have been speculation, but now we are standing on the precipice of such a future and many more people may have thought about the issues than would have if they had not viewed the film.

Now is the time to be looking at the ethics of the technologies presented in GATTACA and determining policy direction. Most of the ethical concerns over PGD have been raised above. These include the loss of individual identity, the eugenics, and the power that could be given to those with ‘perfect’ genes. Issues such as these are not even on the table yet, and I think that this means now is the time to address them.

This means a public discussion, which requires a communication of the issues. As I have argued above, science fiction film can have great effect in giving the public the power to look at science based ideas and interpret and consider them in their own lives. Therefore, it would not be inappropriate to use this capacity of science fiction film in the current debate climate to allow all members of the public a greater understanding of the issues.

This in turn raises ethical questions about the authority that would produce such a work of fiction. A government could fund the production of such a film in order to benefit its people through a discussion of the issues. Yet then there would need to be regulation of the science that went into the film, and the issue of exactly how the funding was allocated. Brodie et al (2001) discuss the controversies of the idea of such government involvement.

Of course there is the default position to use to film GATTACA to the same effect, because most of the issues are already raised in this film. Yet this may mean potential loss of economic stimulus.

Kirby (2003) raises the idea that science fiction can be used as both a funding and promotional tool. He says that those scientists working on science fiction films have the potential to direct the science in order to promote their field. This promotion could lead to increased patronage of certain scientific fields, and therefore increased funding.

This in turn raises concerns about the ethics of such a project, as although the scientists might feel obligated to produce a fictional work full of facts, they have the potential to frame the issues within the work of fiction to their own advantage.

There is of course also the ethical consideration that although the science is advancing quickly and we may need to make decisions on what may soon come to be reality, perhaps we should first deal with the complications of PGD that already exist.

This year there have been papers written by those such as Hershberger and Pierce (2010) and Musters et al. (2010) looking into the perspective of patients attempting to use or using PGD technology and the support they require in making their decisions. This shows me that even without all the potential that such technologies have into the future, much work needs to be done into the current considerations surrounding genetic screening and how they should be handled.

Currently preimplantation genetic diagnosis is not advanced enough to take steps to create a ‘perfect’ child. However, even with the power it can already give to parents, the power to determine the sex of their child, has ethical and moral considerations. Even in their study of PGD patients and providers, Kalfoglou et al (2005) found no consensus in the use of the technology in non-medical sex selection.

This discussion of the issues of non-medical sex selection is playing out in the media. News programs are discussing choosing your child’s sex on television, and it appears in newspapers, and on the internet. Yet the power of science fiction is as yet being unharnessed in this debate, and here I see great potential. And Weingart et al (2003) agree with me as is evident in their statement made seven years ago that

“The wave of films dealing with genetics and the genetic manipulation of humans is probably still to come. The eugenic films that were popular until the mid-1930s have found few followers in recent times. The already mentioned GATTACA(1997) is an exception…” (p.282).

The ethics of giving a global population that is yet to rid itself of century old biases and discriminations the ability to create a new basis for classification should be of great social consideration. So I say bring on the wave of new technology eugenics films that allow the public to access science through fiction.

Now is the time for a new surge of science fiction that deals with the potential impacts of genetic screening and all the ethical and moral considerations that need to come with it. In its brief history preimplantation genetic diagnosis has opened many doors to many possible futures. The capacity for science fiction based on this field to influence the public’s knowledge and understanding of the issues of genetics and its associated technologies should be harnessed in order to allow a fuller and more accessible debate on the future of genetic screening.



Back, K.W. (1995). Frankenstein and Brave New World: two cautionary myths on the boundaries of science. History of European Ideas, 20(1-3), 327-332.

Bates, B.R. (2005). Public culture and public understanding of genetics: a focus group study. Public Understanding of Science, 14, 47-65.

Brodie, M., Foehr, U., Rideout, V., Baer, N., Miller, C., Flournoy, R., and Altman, D. (2001). Communicating health information through the entertainment media. Health Affairs, 20(1), 192-199.

Hershberger, P.E. and Pierce, P.F. (2010). Conceptualizing couples’ decision making in PGD: Emerging cognitive, emotional, and moral dimensions. Patient Education and Counseling, 81, 53-62.

Kalfoglou, A.L., Scott, J. Hudson, K. (2005) PGD patients’ and providers’ attitudes to the use and regulation of preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Reproductive BioMedicine, 11(4), 486-496.

Kirby, D.A. (2003). Science consultants, fictional films, and scientific practice. Social Studies of Science, 33(2), 231-268.

Musters, A. M., Twisk, M., Leschot, N.J., Oosterwijk, C., Korevaar, J.C., Repping, S., Van der Veen, F., and Goddijn, M. (2010). Perspectives of couples with high risk of transmitting genetic disorders, Fertility and Sterility, 94(4), 1239-1243.

Weingart, P., Muhl, C., and Pansegrau, P. (2003). Of power maniacs and unethical geniuses: science and scientists in fiction film. Public Understanding of Science, 12, 279-287.

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