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On the Difference Between Designing Children and Raising Them: Ethics and the Use of Educationally Oriented Biotechnology


Zachary Stein, Harvard University Graduate School of Education Dynamic Development Laboratory, G05 Larson Hall, Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138; e-mail:


The use of educationally oriented biotechnology has grown drastically in recent decades and is likely to continue to grow. Advances in both the neurosciences and genetics have opened up important areas of application and industry, from psychopharmacology to gene-chip technologies. This article reviews the current state of educationally oriented biological technologies, eventually focusing on the use of psychiatric drugs with children and adolescents to improve their academic performance. Distinguishing between “good” and “bad” uses of biological technologies is complicated by conflicting theoretical views about human development, the etiology of disability, and the diagnostic categories that structure treatments. To address these issues I introduce a set of ethical concepts, which are based on a biopsychosocial approach to human development. The difference between designing children and raising children marks an ethically salient difference between approaches that focus on only part of the child (e.g., her brain) and approaches that focus on the full biopsychosocial complexity of the developing child in context. This clarifies the importance of the child's right to both autonomy and care. Implications for policy and practice are offered.