Natalie Keir looks at the controversial ‘designer baby’ industry.

When considering fanatical science-fiction style concepts, nothing seems more bizarre than the prospect of designer babies. The thought of being able to screen embryos for not only diseases, but also good looks, intelligence and general temperament seems so astonishing that it is almost a reflex to decry the notion. What is perhaps most shocking of all, is that some of these services are available now, and furthermore, are a roaring success.

The process works by taking eggs and sperm from the prospective parents and subsequently fertilising the eggs under laboratory conditions. After three days, several 8-cell embryos will have developed. Each of these embryos then undergoes genetic screening for genetic diseases and gender, before the selected embryos are implanted into the mother for the rest of the gestation process.
There are cases where embryo-screening has yielded heart-warming results. Take the case of Charlie Whitaker, who was born with Diamond-Blackfan anaemia (DBA), which prevented his body making red blood cells. This debilitating disease meant that Charlie needed a blood transfusion every two weeks and endured extremely painful daily injections. Agonisingly, his parents were told that the only cure would be a stem cell transplant, for which neither they, nor his sister, were a perfect match. They were left with one option, to conceive a ‘designer baby’. In 2003, Jamie Whitaker was born, and doctors went on to successfully carry out the stem-cell transplant. Charlie has now been given the all-clear, and is able to go on and live a normal life.

There are, however, other cases of embryo screening that are less endearing, yet are almost inevitably entwined into the future of human genetics. These cases involve more material desires, such as couples who endeavour to select their child’s gender, hair colour, eye colour and complexion. An American company ‘The Fertility Institutes’ candidly advertises their sex-selection service on the front page of their website:
‘Just Arrived!
The latest edition of our award winning, highly informative brochure on all you need to know about 100% Gender Selection using PGD. Call us today for your free copy (800) 222-2802’

When put in such a crass fashion, it is easy to see why there is such opposition to the notion. The whole concept does seem to have to the tone of the beginning of a very slippery slope. Looking to the future, it is almost inevitable that it will become the norm for parents to select their child’s characteristics. There is certainly the demand. Where there is demand there is funding, and where there is funding there is usually fast-paced development. When it is possible to screen embryos for life-threatening diseases such as breast cancer and cystic fibrosis, why not scan for vulnerabilities such as manic depression, and while you are at it, maybe have a quick check for undesirable temperaments, such as a foul temper or laziness. It seems ridiculous, and quite frankly deplorable, but in one thousand years, when the science is readily available and affordable, will prospective parents really be able to resist? Perhaps not, but what will happen to the Stephen Hawkins of the future? Other great minds such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton would have probably all failed genetic screening for perfectly healthy and sound-minded embryos. Could genetic-screening lead to a population of perfectly nice but generally mediocre citizens?

The perplexing thing is, when this does become the norm, and the human species is merely a sea of healthy, attractive, well natured individuals, this era of science will be looked back on and romanticised. What we now see as a threat to our very nature will be the basis of their existence, and those of us who are opposed to the idea will be seen as those who stood in the way of a triumph of human endeavour. The question is, is it our moral and ethical perceptions that need to catch up, or our scientific progress that needs to slow down?

 

Natalie Keir

 

Image by limaoscarjuliet