// you’re reading...

Assisted Reproduction

Designer Babies: Parade of Horribles or Hysteria?

The frenzy following the news of OctoMom and Dr. Frankenstein has continued unabated. From outcries seeking to prohibit IVF to adopting a China-like cap on the number of children, opponents of assisted reproductive technologies are frothing at the mouth, like a feral dog, seeing an opportunity to dramatically change the landscape.

Keith Kleiner of Singularity Hub has reached deep into his rhetorical bag to bring up a reliably provocative topic – designer babies. Kleiner complains:

Now, in the latest twist in the march towards designer babies, The Fertility Institutes says they will soon be able to offer couples the ability to screen their embryos for eye color, hair color, and complexion. The Institute cannot change the DNA of the donating couple — if neither the mother nor the father has genes for green eyes, for example, then the Institute cannot give them a baby with green eyes. Yet within the constraints inherent in the DNA of the donating couple, The Fertility Institute is willing to screen embryos for these traits. The Fertility Institute wants to offer several other customizations, and many more are sure to be released in the coming years as the science behind screening for them is developed.

A new generation of genetically enhanced designer babies is inevitable in the coming decades. Yet for those of us that are merely “normal”, do not despair. Even as we are outmatched by the next generation genetically, a host of new technologies from chip implants to gene therapy may allow us to keep up, allowing us to enhance ourselves in equally transformative ways. The future will indeed be interesting.

Etymologically, the colloquial term “designer babies” dates back to the mid 1980s and was used to define a child whose genotype would be purposefully designed using various reproductive and genetic technologies to be the optimal recombination of their parents’ genetic material. Today, the term is almost always used as a pejorative as it evokes fears of Nazi eugenics. We hear the horror stories about how this technology will allow parental units to breed children to advance certain social preferences like increased intelligence, greater physical skills, specific eye and hair color, desired height or greater memory. Beyond the metaphysical fears is the apprehension that we will create a tiered society where genetic discrimination exists between differently-enhanced groups.

Typically these kind of concerns never materialize. Similar fears where raised when Doctors Steptoe and Edwards introduced IVF to the world. Who can forget the intense debates caused by the birth of the first “test tube baby”, Louise Brown back in 1978? Or the prognostications that this technology would lead to human-animal hybrids and monster babies. Well, 30 years later Louise Brown has delivered her own child, IVF procedures are commonplace and the expression “test tube baby” rarely used.

Any technology is subject to abuse. Yet society has always found ways to balance these advances against the need to maintain our humanity. Should we stop the Human Genome Project because of where it might lead us? Should we prohibit parents who might be Tay-Sachs carriers from doing genetic screening to avoid bringing a child condemned to a painful death sentence? Should we tell two professional athletes that they cannot procreate because their resulting child might be blessed with extraordinary physical skills?

Lost in all of this is that the screening the author is decrying does not enhance the resulting child. It merely selects between existing embryos created with the parents unenhanced DNA. It is really no more objectionable then the decades-old practice of spinning sperm in order to have a child of a certain gender. Parenthetically, the cost to perform PGD is no where near the $18,400 figure claimed in the article. Most facilities charge approximately $4,000 for the testing. I would also be remiss in not pointing out that most fertility clinics will not perform PGD solely for gender selection or vanity traits.

Eugenics, in some form, has been practiced for as long as civilization has existed. It is an unavoidable (and many argue necessary) aspect of evolution and we need to be very careful not to create a hysteria where none is warranted.


3 comments for “Designer Babies: Parade of Horribles or Hysteria?”

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On LinkedinCheck Our Feed