Designer Babies

While you cannot today genetically engineer a baby for gender, eye color, or height of your choice, there are accepted and reliable technologies that allow you to select for gender, screen for genetic disorders, prevent birth defects, and very soon with reliability pick “simple” traits like those formerly-mentioned, amongst several candidate zygotes (single-celled embryos) or cytoplasts (few-celled embryos) (1). Intelligence of several varieties will probably not be long from the menu.

Genetic Selection vs. Genetic Engineering

Regardless of whether we are talking about selection or engineering the goal remains the same: producing healthier better fit children than random natural processes might create. The difference between the two is a matter of interaction with the actual trait-producing DNA, or “genes”.

In order to select for the right combination of genes to get the desired results, you have to understand the difference between two or more very similar options which may vary by only a few base pairs. This recognition is the essence of both genetic selection and genetic engineering. Selection is knowing the right combination when you see it; engineering is the technical skill to directly “arrange” or “edit” the genes in the proper known sequence.

Genetic Selection and Designer Babies

On August 13th 1996, a girl named Jessica was born after a genetic prescreening. Her parents had long wanted a baby girl without success. Doctors at the Virginia Fertility Clinic, in vitro fertilized her parents’ sperm and egg, produced a lot of embryos and then selected an embryo which would give rise to a girl. This embryo was then implanted into her mother and she was born normally. The same technique is already being used to diagnose and prevent deadly genetic diseases. To achieve this, scientists screen from several embryos for the disease and select an embryo which doesn’t show the sign of the disease.

Institutes like the L.A. Fertility Clinic, which was first created to screen for genetic diseases, now provide options for gender selection and soon will provide parents with an option to select physical traits of their babies. According to Dr. Steinberg, the director of the institute predicted that they will soon be able to select for eye color with 80% certainty (5).  A boost to this technology was achieved in 2012 when the complete DNA of the fetus was mapped. This made it even easier to screen for diseases, select for gender and engineer (select) simpler traits like eye color, handedness, addictive behavior, nutritional background and athleticism (4).

Physical traits are quite complex in nature. Multiple genes, pathways need to interact with a lot of factors in the environment for the trait to express itself. Thus quite a bit of research is still required to select complex traits, however we are on the track that will soon lead to the ability to make “parent-desired” babies (1-4).

Genetic selection is a temporary measure with the relatively limited opportunities provided by nature to improve our children’s quality of life, compared to the promise of genetic engineering.

Genetic Engineering and Designer Babies

As you may have seen in other articles on this site, there is an amazing competence growing amongst our scientists and technicians around the world in the area of successfully producing recombinant DNA (man-made segments of DNA, including genes). In everything from Genetically-Modified Organism (GMO) corn to chimeras (an organism made from the DNA of two separate types of organisms), experts are successfully manipulating DNA at its most fundamental level.

As our proficiency in recognizing and associating certain segments of DNA (genes) to their physical manifestation grows, and our skill at creating recombinant DNA strengthens, these complimentary abilities will enable Designer Babies to be born with traits even beyond the genetic options two parents’ combined DNA could produce.

For example, a set of parents may wish to have a child free of [insert any genetic disease you wish here], a condition from which both parents suffer.  After obtaining the services of a preimplantation genetic diagnosis clinic, multiple attempts are made to create an embryo from the sperm and eggs of the parents that would be free of the genetic disorder, but to no avail.  In our hypothetical situation no natural combination of the parent’s genetic material affords their offspring a healthier life. With genetic engineering the faulty DNA could be manually edited to prevent the disease from occurring in the child.

Designer Babies and Public Opinion

People have different reactions to the thought of deliberately producing healthier, parent-desired children.

Some people are afraid that designing babies would give rise to another eugenic movement or might lead to a world like the fictitious one dreamed up by Aldous Huxley in his book “A brave new world” (6). Alarmists argue that genetics might soon make the world full of blue-eyed, blonde-haired babies or “super-babies”.  Other people think that it is our responsibility to ensure the well-being of our children, and take the perspective that parents are a diverse range of people each with their own, unique ideals of health, traits, and well-being to bestow upon their offspring.

One concern with today’s currently limited genetic selection process is that of discarding defective embryos. But because the human body naturally aborts many defective fetuses by a process called spontaneous abortion/miscarriage, many people believe that discarding a defective embryo in the clinic should not be viewed any differently. In addition, since in vitro fertilization already provides options for gender selection and other simpler traits, many scientists and parents alike think of selecting for complex traits as an improvement.

One common misconception and a scare tactic used by those opposed to germline human genetic engineering, is that we will pass the point of no return: that altering genes that can be inherited will forever change the human race and we will be helpless to turn back the hands of time.  Actually, the exact opposite is true. With the power to directly edit genes, any alteration can be retracted, further tweaked, eliminated, or anything whatsoever.

To Design or Not to Design

That, to contradict the old saying, is not the question.  The design, or rather the selection process of desirable traits is already a widespread and acceptable practice for the elimination of “obvious” defects and diseases, as well as gender balancing.  While there are a few fundamentalists and others who decry even these practices, for the most part we as a society consider it acceptable.

The more appropriate question to ask is “Is there a line?”

There was an article in the Scientific American from some time ago (previously referenced) which asked a few questions apparently intended to be deep, probing, or in some way framing of potential dilemmas.  To illustrate how relatively easy it is to determine broad guidelines around “right” and “wrong” in terms of parental rights around their designer babies, I’ll repeat the questions and also provide the answers (1).

Q1. Should parents be allowed to pick embryos for specific tissue types so that their new baby can serve as a donor for an ailing sibling?

A1. Of course, so long as the tissue types are of a healthy variety. Normal legislation would apply towards compelling any post-birth donation.

Q2. Should a deaf parent who embraces his or her condition be permitted to select an embryo apt to produce a child unable to hear?

A2. Of course not. You cannot deprive an unborn child of any physical or mental capacity inherent in basic human functionality.

Q3. Will selection of traits perceived to be desirable end up diminishing variability within the gene pool, the raw material of natural selection?

A3. Genetic engineering will enable more genetic variability amongst the human race than could ever be achieved through naturally occurring processes.

The Ultimate Threat to Society: Overly Restrictive Legislation

For those who organize to oppose genetic selection and genetic engineering to create designer babies, one of the arguments is that it will create an ever-widening gap between the Haves and the Have Nots: those that can afford embryonic improvement and those that cannot. They seek to impose restrictive legislation to prevent the common use of the technology for either individual or societal improvement. Some go as far as wanting to turn back the clock such that curing preventable genetic disorders is made illegal.

The net effect of restrictive legislation in one location (or even a broad coalition of countries) will only drive the scientists, medical professionals, wealthy financiers and others desiring to employ the technologies for personal betterment ‘underground’. In this probable scenario the technology will continue to be developed but as a result of the (ineffective) ban, it will only be made available to the very wealthy and privileged who will be essentially free from any societal oversight or legal safeguards.

In the scenario in which human enhancement technologies are banned in one or even a coalition of countries, the activists responsible for swinging public opinion toward this future may sleep better at night having served their short term consciences, but at the cost of creating an increasingly elitist minority further widening the gulf between the haves and have nots at the genetic level. Sadly for society, these activists will accelerate the very future they are trying to avoid.

The answer, in part, is the active education and participation of everyone in evaluating and applying the technologies toward the shaping of a deliberate, positive future for all. The question is not how do we stop technological progress (an impossibility), rather, how do we make its benefits equally and safely available to all.

References

  1. Web address  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=regulate-designer-babies
  2. Web address  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=designer-babies-preimplantation-genetic-diagnosis-pgd
  3. Author  Baird, Stephen L., Title  Designer Babies: Eugenics Repackaged or Consumer Options? Date   2007Publication  International Technology Education Association (ITEA)
  4. Web address  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/gender-selection-_n_1889991.html
  5. Web address  http://www.fertility-docs.com/about.phtml
  6. Ly, Sarah, “Ethics of Designer Babies”. Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2011-03-31). ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/2088