Dis-topian futures: Gattaca and genetic modification

A classic example of what I term dis-topian sci-fi, dystopian futures where peoples’ disabilities are focussed on, Gattaca was so influential it even helped shape the debate on genetic modification. Here’s why you should watch it…

Image of Jerome (Jude Law) and Vincent (Ethan Morrow)
Image of Jerome (Jude Law) and Vincent (Ethan Morrow)
© genotopia.scienceblog.com

Gattaca. Released in 1997. Directed by Andrew Nichol. Featuring Jude Law and Ethan Hawke. A brilliantly written film with good, if predictable, plot development, and subdued environments which allow us to focus on the range of emotions played by the actors, who do an absolutely stunning job.

The main theme of this film is that genetic modification is used to control every facet of a baby’s development in life. In this future, disease can be eliminated, and any genetic traits that cause a human body to act ‘outside the norm’. It’s basically high-tech eugenics.

But there’s a catch – this only happens provided you have the money for it. So, naturally, there is a huge (poor) sector of society that still have illnesses and disabilities. These people are declared inValid, and are used and overworked in cheap, strenuous labour providing the service sector for the middle- and upper-class portion of society.

Image of the genetics testing screen, declaring the DNA owner's genes as 'inValid'
Image © Prof. Lauren Klein, Georgia School of Literature

Strangely, while there is no issue in allowing disabled folks to perform incredibly strenous tasks such as cleaning and heavy lifting, there are numerous constraints on disabled folks being allowed into more expensive fields of study such as science. For example, the main character of the film, Vincent, wants to become an astronaut, but is automatically screened out because of his disabilities and health issues. So his task is to basically steal someone else’s genetic data and get onto the space program. There’s a lot more complication to it than this, but I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, though. It’s really something you have to watch yourself.

It’s a weird film to watch after coming back from a strenuous disabled-inclusive expedition to the Antarctic, which saw my wheelchair-user friends climbing the rigging and trekking rough terrain, that’s for sure!

The whole point of the film is to make you feel very unsettled. And unsettled I did feel. The idea of anyone using information about the genetic traits that cause my disability, to my detriment, terrifies me. Even more so because at many points in the past I have considered the idea of incorporating genetic information into our lives as a positive thing. I mean, it could save time at the doctors, it could eradicate peoples’ suspicions about lying (which is, unfortunately, a common side-effect of having a disability or illness), it could enable faster treatment, etcetera, etcetera.

But if the powers that be were to use this information to restrict access to treatment for the poorer sector, if the powers that be decide how this information is used, then we have a problem. If using genetic modification to create designer babies for the rich is given priority over using genetic modification to get rid of all disease, then we have a problem. And this is what Gattaca is all about. I mean, how do you react to a world where you can check up the genetic makeup of a potential partner by stealing some of their hair or dead skin and taking it to a government repository without their consent?

We are part way there. Designer babies are already possible, and there are many cases of people terminating foetuses due to them having a particular disability trait. For instance, the UK termination rate for babies with Down’s Syndrome in 2012 is a horrifying 60%, whereas the overall termination rate wavers around 20%. Many campaigners already have called for more consideration with genetics regulation, which has had a positive effect so far with governments instating new policies. Some campaigners, as well as some scientists, have cited Gattaca as a worst-case scenario.

There are genuine criticisms of the story, however. Vincent’s main illness is a heart condition, which is the principal reason they give for not allowing him to be an astronaut. Currently, the US Astronaut Training Academy does not allow people with heart conditions to join, as it is perceived as a risk and they have no facilities to allow for the management of such a condition. Some see it unreasonable to allow for such conditions, as cost of the space program is also something to consider, and cost always wins out.

This furthermore reflects something that continually goes on in the working world today. Many companies don’t want the extra expenditure involved in recruiting someone with a body that’s different from the norm, despite the potential benefits their skills could bring to the company. Many insurance companies, particularly in the US, do the same and discriminate against those with illnesses, disabilities, and, even without hard evidence, the ‘propensity’ of that person to a particular disease, even if it might never happen, because maybe it happened once in their family in the past.

This kind of thing happens quite often, and I can’t help but feel that any society, particularly that of Gattaca, is missing a trick in not involving people with different bodies. Conforming to an ideal of normal seems a bit totalitarian, a bit final. It’s as though we will never continue advancing, and like we will just stagnate in terms of our evolution.

Film has a long history of portraying illness and disability with the ‘plague’ model, where those afflicted are segregated from the healthy, able-bodied ones. They are often pitied, avoided, abused. A lot of it goes back to the ingrained fear in our culture from the time of the Black Death. And even further back, to the mention of Biblical plagues and leprosy. Unfortunately this leads to a lack of distinction between illness and disability – they are two different things, but folks don’t often think it. I have known folks to be scared that a disability is contagious, and shunning the person involved!

However, what I like about Gattaca (along with other dis-topian works) is that it manages to use this ‘plague’ model in a horrifying way, making the audience shocked at what’s happened. Proper dystopia in action!

The point of the film is to make us think. It portrays a nightmare scenario, and has received criticism that it is against genetic modification, but I feel that its intention is to provide a good sounding board, to check ourselves against, before we embark into new and exciting scientific territory.

So give this film a go. Be prepared though – you might be pausing it to have deep philosophical conversations with your friends part way through, as this is certainly food for the brain!



Cases of Genetic Discrimination: http://www.genome.gov/12513976

Can You Be Fired For Your Genes? [Article]: http://ideas.time.com/2012/02/20/can-you-be-fired-for-your-genes/

Melbourne case study- Genetic Discrimination in Insurance: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130903102109.htm

Making Gattaca A Reality: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2013/10/28/are-we-too-close-to-making-gattaca-a-reality/

IVF Pregnancies Terminated Due To Downs Syndrome: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/9402447/IVF-pregnancies-terminated-because-of-Downs-syndrome.html

Table of termination rates of Downs Syndrome, Europe: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2344123/table/tbl4/

UK Gov Abortion Statistics: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/213386/Commentary1.pdf

Legacies of Plague in Literary Theory: http://us.macmillan.com/legaciesofplagueinliteraturetheoryandfilm/JenniferCooke

Main Image © bienvenue-a-gattaca.blogspot.com


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