'Designer babies' refers to children that have been genetically engineered in the womb to have the most desirable traits. With the advent of extended embryo screening or embryo selection startups for the diagnosis of genetic disorders, comes a myriad of new ethical considerations and challenges.
Jamie Whiteley always knew that committing to a relationship was out of the question. “I am a single mother by choice,” she explains. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t have a child if you really want one. Besides, I don’t see myself compromising for anyone now, or in the future”.
Whiteley belongs to the class of solo moms who are in their 30s and 40s, living a busy life. These women decided to focus on their career rather than finding someone to settle down with. At 38, she decided to spend her life with someone. After four unsuccessful months of trying for a family, the marketing executive at PepsiCo., had Vivian, a beautiful girl with dark hair, who was born 12 months ago.
When Whiteley decided it was time to start a family, she didn’t join a dating site. Rather, she made an appointment at a fertility clinic to have a designer baby via IVF with anonymous sperm donors.
At such clinics, the embryos produced are genetically screened, so the parents are able to choose which embryos to implant in the hopes of the ‘perfect’ baby. The embryo menu at such fertility clinics contain a description, which goes something like this:
Embryo 23 – male
- No serious early onset diseases
- Lower than average risk of autism
- Lower risk of autoimmune disorders
- Blue eyes, light brown hair, terrible eye sight
- 72% chance of coming in the top half in SAT tests
It’s More Than Just Designer Babies
Jamie has 120 of these ‘designer babies’ embryos to choose from, all made by in IVF from her eggs and the anonymous donor’s sperm. After Vivian was born, Whiteley paid $23,000 for IVF at the fertility clinic, for designing her baby her way.
Vivian was amongst the 65,000 designer babies conceived in 2016 with the help of embryo selection. Over the past decade, the number of embryo selection has skyrocketed nearly 62% from 70,000 in 2005 to over 113,400 today.
The process allows couples to tinker the genetics of their baby. Since we discovered Crispr-Cas9 genome editing, the process of embryo selection for rearing designer babies (free of specific genes involved in inherited disease) has become a trend.
The Game Changers in Gene Editing
GenePeeks, Inc., a genetic information company uses the DNA of eggs and sperm to create “virtual babies”. The hypothetical child is then screened for more than 500 recessive genetic diseases that cannot be seen with existing pre-pregnancy screening tools. The team hopes to make the GenePeeks’ technology available to any couple trying to conceive. Recently, the company launched Matchright, a service to help parents protect their future children from severe pediatric diseases.
“The service is based on the scientific reality that a healthy sperm donor for one woman might be a risky match for another woman,” says Anne Morriss, CEO of GenePeeks. “The best way to assess this kind of risk is to digitally combine the DNA information of a woman and her donor. This is what GenePeeks does.”
Genetics startup, 23andMe, was recently granted a patent for ‘family inheritance trait calculator,’ a technology which allows couples to see what kind of traits their child might inherit. It’s also used by customers as a fun way to look at things such as eye color, height, hair texture, muscle development, expected life span, or recessive traits like whether their child will be lactose intolerant.
The Ethics of Designer Babies
Organizations like 23and Me and GenePeeks, Inc. are receiving backlash from the media and from organizations dealing with reproductive issues. For instance, in a press statement released by the Center for Genetics and Society in the US, director Marcy Darnovsky said: "It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent. It amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies. We believe the patent office made a serious mistake in allowing a patent that includes drop-down menus from which to choose a future child's traits.”
Eventually, 23andMe succumbed to the pressure and wrote off its inheritance calculator service in fertility treatments.
“Designer babies,” as well call it, might look something like straight out of a dystopian science fiction novel. The idea of artificial conception or artificial gestation is greatly inspired by predictions about the future of reproductive technology by the biologists JBS Haldane and Julian Huxley in the 1920s. Huxley’s brother and futurist, Aldous wrote the prophetic dystopian novel about it.
The novel was, Brave New World, published in 1932. It opens six hundred years in the future, where the combination of science and pleasure form an ostensibly successful feudalistic society. The population is grown in vats in a hegemonized hatchery graded into five tiers of different intelligence by chemical treatment of the embryos. There are no parents as such – the gestating fetuses and babies are tended by workers in white overalls, under white, dead lights.
The larger societal concerns are extremely troubling, Darnovsky said. “This project could foster the false belief that biology trumps social, economic and environmental conditions in influencing our health and well-being. And it could encourage the dangerous idea that science should be used to breed `better’ people, breathing new life into the specter of eugenics that has long hung over the field of genetics.”
The Debate Continues
Brave New World had the scientific community discuss the ethical and legal dimensions of the production and sales of human embryos. Then came Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005 novel) which has us loom into the discussions of reproductive control and discussion. Ishiguro’s literary novel described children produced and reared to adulthood for the sole purpose of being organ donors.
Novels like Brave New World and Never Let Me Go implore readers to reflect on the human costs of advances in genetic and reproductive technologies. It’s quite easy to dismiss literary novels as mere fiction. However, let’s not forget that our bio-psycho-engineering is halfway there, and the concerns are far from illegitimate. For example, scientists are using Crispr-Cas9 to genetically modify healthy human embryos. In early 2016, scientists removed HIV from human immune cells, and now they’re looking to use the genome-editing tool to alter human T-cells to fight cancer.
A team of scientists warned in Nature two years ago that genetic manipulation of the germ line – sperm and egg cells, by methods like Crispr-Cas9, even if focused initially on improving health, “could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement.”
The prospects of bottled embryos, genetic screening, and genetic manipulation look promising for improving the health of children through prenatal diagnosis. However, each of these possibilities coupled with potential social repercussions could have detrimental consequences in the future. The ethical concerns facing genetic selection and designer babies still remain unaddressed.