Fonda Lee’s Zeroboxer is a science fiction work about the sport of zero-gravity boxing. See my review for more details on the work. Here, I’ll be highlighting aspects of the book that deal with bioethics, and offering some philosophical and theological comments on them.
The basics of the book are that Carr “The Raptor” Luka has been rising in the ranks as a great zeroboxer (one who boxes in zero-gravity). As his star rises, so does his fame, and possibly his infamy. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.
Genetic Therapy vs. Enhancement
The first question is simple: What is the difference between genetic therapy or genetic enhancement? I wrote about this distinction elsewhere:
Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”
In the world of Zeroboxer, genetic therapy is standard, and enhancement is regulated, but normalized.
The main character, Luka Carr, unbeknownst to himself, has “illegal” levels of enhancement. His mother allowed a criminal to modify him and make him some kind of superhuman. But it is hard to see why he should be faulted for it–after all, as he says, he’s still himself. It isn’t his fault that others made such choices around his life.
Enhancement is more common on Mars than on Earth. The latter, so-called “Terrans,” stage protests on Mars and about Martians as they seek to go against their “freakish” ways of enhancing. It’s not hard to imagine just this would happen. Who are we to play God, after all? But that kind of argument leads to questions about what it means to play God. Is it playing God to prevent illnesses through modern medicine? How far a step is it from surgery to correct vision to enhancing vision genetically? These questions defy easy answers.
Poverty and Enhancement/Therapy
Lee also raised the issue of poverty and the enormous inequalities that could be created by furthering genetic enhancement. Luka remarks on the state of a friend, Enzo, who’s just shown up wearing glasses:
“Why don’t you get your eyes fixed, then?”
[Luka] guessed the answer before Enzo lowered his face in embarassment. “My mom doesn’t have the money right now. She said maybe in a few months…”
A surge of anger brought heat to Carr[ Luka]’s scalp. It was bad enough that the kid had an asthmatic wheeze and carried around an inhaler. Now he was half-blind too? What next, a peg leg? Didn’t Enzo’s mother care that her son walked around with genetic poverty written all over him? (117)
The phrase “genetic poverty” is forward-thinking and possibly prophetic on the part of Lee. What happens if and when genetic therapy and enhancement become norms? It seems to me that therapy is potentially very valuable and a great good. But what kind of greater inequalities would come to be from it? We must try to anticipate these and work to prevent further inequalities. As Christians, we need to care for the impoverished, and that includes what might be considered “genetic poverty.”
Supposing diseases begin to be cured on a broader scale through genetic therapy, it seems that Christians ought to support these changes with every effort. After all, curing illness and helping those in need is what we are called to do. But what does this mean for enhancement?
That question is much more complex. Enhancement, it seems to me, would necessarily increase the inequity between the haves and have-nots. After all, those who have the money to get super-sight or super-strength or predispositions to being great musicians could simply cash in to do so. Those who don’t, cannot. But does this mean it is wrong? It’s a very difficult question, and one that I don’t have a firm answer on. I lean towards saying that such things are permissible, but regulation seems a wise choice given we have little idea what impact modifying genes might have on the broader person. Again, I’ve written more on these questions here. What are your thoughts on answers to these questions?
Zeroboxer is an unexpectedly thoughtful book. Though it has some flaws, it is a worthy read. Just be aware of the violent and explicit content. See my review for more details on that. Exploring these issues related to genetics is very important. I see this as a field that will be expanding rapidly over the next decades. Christians need to engage with it and think about it ahead of time.
Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?– I delve into deeper questions about genetic enhancement vs. therapy. I also provide some further reading on the topic.
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