Choice of Life

written by Kate Jiang

Header image by Sangharsh Lohakare on Unsplash

Content warning: This fictional work contains mention of suicide. Please refer to the Biochemistry Health and Wellness resource page if you need any support.

The first time I was told that I would not live for long was when I got the prognosis for my cancer. Turned out that my partner was correct; the reasons for my never-ending headaches had been more than stress and sleep deprivation.

The second time I was told that I would not live for long was when, as part the treatment plan for the tumor, the whole-genome sequencing analysis revealed “abnormalities” in my genome. They told me that I had no blood relation to my parents, a cliché plot you would see in movies and books. Certainly a surprise, but it also had little emotional effect on me—particularly when, as a grown-up adult, I was well aware of the love from my parents.

No, that was not the issue. What I got along with the genetic analysis was a governmental letter regarding my prosecution. They advised me to turn myself in for humane execution, as if the palliative care would be insufficient.

They told me that they found evidence of my genome being genetically engineered, an act strictly banned throughout the world. Any parents who attempted to have a so-called designer baby would face a life sentence, and the offspring would be executed to preserve the natural gene pool of humans.

Instead of three months, I had a week.

*          *          *

My adoptive family told me that they had known from the start. “I’m infertile,” said my adoptive mother, “and we cannot afford an artificial uterus or any other methods to have our own child. We were on the adoption waitlist for a really long time, until a friend of our friend told us about the not-quite-legal route…Babies who have been genetically modified and their parents decided that they don’t want to take the responsibility. And I told your father, ‘We can raise a child, and we can save a baby from being executed.’”

She held my gaze as she added, “I never regretted our choice.”

My adoptive father leaned against the wall as he always did—he looked like he was listening to our conversation, but he also had a binder filled with documentations I brought from the hospital opened in his hand. I knew he was not paying attention because Dad never listened to what Mom said, much to her annoyance.

He raised his eyes from the letter. “They gave you a week to turn yourself in; that’s enough time for you to pack up and hide. My friend knows people who will get you out of the country, maybe somewhere with better healthcare and you could use fake genomic data to get access to targeted cancer therapy—”

“And how about you two?”

 “We will stay behind. You need someone to help you cover your tracks, and it’s harder for them to find one person than to find all three of us.” He said it as if he were talking about the plan for our annual family vacation.

“You’ll both end up in jail.”

Mom walked to Dad and held his hand. Silently, both of them met my eyes. In their eyes I saw nothing but determination; in their eyes I saw nothing but unconditional love.

*          *          *

My partner cried when I told her about my prognosis. She did not blame me for not going to see the doctor sooner—she just cried and cried and hugged me without letting me go.

“We are in this together,” she said as she finally wiped away her tears. “We still got three months. Let’s make a bucket list. Let’s seek out alternative treatment plans. I’ll be with you till the end.”

Actually, there’s something else I’d like to tell you—but I found the words struggling to come out. The headache emerged like a stab inside my brain. I shouldn’t be afraid. I should trust her. I know she will accept me no matter who I am.  

I pushed the letter towards her. “I was born as a genetically engineered baby,” I waited until she finished reading through it, and said eventually.

Within a heartbeat I caught a flash of horror in her eyes, as she moved her hand away from mine. It was, at that moment, that I realized she was with me nevermore.

She placed her hand on my hand again, and told me that she still loved me and would be with me no matter who I was. But she was not meeting my eyes, and her touch felt like a piece of lifeless cloth covering my body. She hugged me, and I could not feel any warmth even though her body remained warm, warmer than mine.

*          *          *

I erased myself from the town the following week, leaving Mom and Dad with a farewell letter. I deleted my partner’s contact information from my phone.

For the past week I had been doing research on designer babies and my biological parents. It was not hard to figure out the latter in an era where genome sequencing was readily accessible to everyone. Come to think about it, my adoptive parents had avoided nearly all situations where sequencing of my genome could be involved, be it lineage tracking or pre-screening for diseases such as cancer.

Aside from the ethical issues brought by designer babies, CRISPR-based editing has been criticized for its off-target effects which could lead to mutations that cause cancer progression…”

I slammed the book. The headache was striking again, making me almost collapse as I walked out of the library. My biological mother lived one block away from this library in a penthouse apartment, alone by herself.

“You looked exactly like your father,” was the first thing she told me when I entered the room. I knew my biological father had passed away due to a genetic disease that, had I not been genetically engineered, would 100% have killed me by now. The way she looked at me as a split image of another human made me uneasy.

“We did not want a designer baby with improved intelligence or anything–I just wanted a healthy child that would remind me of him. A fruit of our marriage, a bloodline to prove that he had once existed in this world. That’s all—that’s all I’ve ever wanted. Isn’t it simply part of human nature to want a kid who’s related to them by blood?” the woman said, as she started tearing up in front of me.

And I thought, how pathetic.

“Yet you still gave me up. You were so afraid of the consequences that you chose to put me up for illegal adoption.” I said as I heard sirens from outside, which was hurting my head even more. They had finally hunted me down.

“Rumors started to spread and I couldn’t let the officials find out. If they decided to sequence you, my career would be over,” she paused, “and they would kill you. But I wanted you to live.”

“You just want the man you love to continue living inside me.” I snapped. Someone was violently knocking on the door and yelling things, but we both ignored them. “And you were too much of a coward to give up your good life.”

The woman said, “I kept all your photos from your birth—”

“The only good deed you’ve ever done was to hand me to a family much better than you. And giving me cancer from the gene editing, I guess.”

She froze as I said the last sentence. My head was about to explode like the apartment door that was burst open by police. I retreated to the terrace as they pointed their guns at me, calling me to surrender. In their eyes I saw nothing indicating that they thought of me as a live human being.

This would be where I die as a genetically engineered human, an abnormality of society. A pollution to the gene pool, even if I had not and would not reproduce like my biological parents. And even if they did not shoot me, the tumor in my brain would annihilate me in a few months.

I wanted to live. I had dreamed of holding my partner’s hand and growing old together and be buried in the same grave. I wanted to spend more time with my parents—my real parents—and go on many, many more family trips and tell them again and again how much I loved them. I hated to think how devastated they would be by my death.

I didn’t have a choice for living, but perhaps I could choose how I die.

I gazed at the woman who stood behind the police so hard that I hoped my glare would haunt her till the end of her life—

And I leaped off the rooftop.

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