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Gattaca 25 Years Later

by Michel Fariña, Juan Jorge

25 years after the premiere of Gattaca, the Department of Bioethics and Film of the International Chair in Bioethics, pays tribute to its creator, Andrew Niccol, opening this discussion forum about his work. The launch of this project coincides with the month in which International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated, which is one of the primary reasons Gattaca was selected as the inaugural film. Gattaca’s central themes surrounding the quest to perfect the human species echo the Nazi eugenic campaign to rid the world of these deemed "unfit."

While the film was categorized as "science fiction" when it was released, we believe it is important to point out that these ideas were very much part of the reality of the Nazi regime for millions of innocent people who were considered to be part of an inferior class that was persecuted and murdered by medical doctors looking to create a master race.

Strictly speaking, the entire filmography of Andrew Niccol is of enormous interest for bioethics and Human Rights. His first film,Gattaca (1997), anticipated pre-implantation genetic tests, such as the PGT-P. His second film, S1m0ne (2002), confronted us with the omnipresence of virtuality and the preeminence of images. And with In Time (2011) Niccol introduced us to the immortality scenario, anticipating one of the possible applications of CRISPR-Cas 9.

The film Gattaca begins with two opening epigraphs. They introduce the philosophical debate at the heart of the film. Let’s examine them:

Consider God’s handiwork: who can straighten what he hath made crooked?
Ecclesiastes 6.13

I not only think we will tamper with Mother nature, I think Mother wants us to.
Willard Gaylin

The first quote is taken from the Old Testament of the Bible. It asserts that God is responsible for all of Creation, even the accidents and defects of our own individual births. It is, therefore, also claiming that it would be wrong of us to attempt to change (or perfect or straighten) what God has created in His image. As everything is God’s will, it is our duty to accept our fate and our limitations.

The second epigraph represents the opposite view. This scientist is arguing that our scientific and technical advances should not be thwarted by moral, religious or ethical concerns about what we might be doing to nature or to God’s handiwork. Rather, it is not only our right, but our duty to improve nature and ourselves, rather than just accepting our fate and our limitations. If we have the knowledge and the ability, the science and the technology, we should do whatever we can to perfect humankind.

The contrast of these epigraphs is the central bioethical component of this film. Gattaca attempts to put in tension both sides of the argument: the religious and the scientific. [1]

What is the place of the genetic data? It is an enigma that remains beyond any claim to certainty. With the offer of a pre-implantation genetic test, it is impossible to escape the desire to know its results. This structural feature of human curiosity and the need for reassurance needs to be limited . Not severed, but limited, in the sense of supplementing that demand with a space in which to process the questions of the person or parental couple.

It happens that, from the subjective point of view, the PGT-P introduces a paradoxical situation. Science offers a resource that, if not used, generates a potential feeling of guilt in the parents —for not having done everything possible to ensure the best conditions for their offspring. However, if PGT-P is used, it introduces the requirement of having to decide on impossible options, thereby generating a different type of guilt for not choosing correctly. In the film, Vincent’s parents are confronted with this dilemma when they must choose the conditions for the birth of their second child.

Gattaca is an excellent example of how a subject’s desire transcends determinations and conditioning. Vincent’s journey is a moving lesson in autonomy and subjectivity. In short, with his debut, Andrew Niccol was doubly visionary. He not only anticipated PGT-P and other genetic screening technologies by 25 years, he also offered us a way to deal with the moral crossroads that they pose to us.


[1To analyze these questions, the visionary book "Test Tube Women: What Future for Motherhood", by Rita Arditti, Renate Duelli-Klein and Shelley Minden, published in 1989, almost a decade before the premiere of Gattaca, continues to be an unavoidable reference.



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Message from María Paula Paragis  » 4 January 2023 » paula.paragis@gmail.com 

I find the initiative of the Department of Bioethics and Film of the International Chair in Bioethics very interesting as it brings up two elements of great importance. In the first place, having chosen Gattaca emphasizes how films have the power of presenting bioethical issues way ahead of their time and still confront us with urgent questions we face today (25 years after its commercial release), proving that cinema is without doubt a meaningful tool for ethical deliberation. Secondly, in recent years there have been lots of technical and scientific advances in the field of genetics which confront bioethicists with pressing dilemmas such as the relationship between science, diversity and inclusion, as well as the risks of genetic determinism and genetic perfectionism.

If we transcend the simplistic moral interpretation of the film, I believe its most valuable lesson is that there are gaps that science cannot fill or control, which are linked to the intrinsic complexity of human subjectivity and desire.


Original Title:Gattaca

Director: Andrew Niccol

Year: 1997

Country: EEUU