The term ‘designer babies’ has been bandied around for some years now, and refers to babies whose genetic make-up has been selected or altered. This could be to eradicate a disease or defect, or it could be to ensure that particular genes are present. The idea has been discussed in science for many years and in science fiction, the concept has been around for much, much longer. The issue, however, is extremely controversial and as science races to meet science-fiction, the debate is becoming a serious one.
Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis
Actually, the concept of ‘designer babies’ is not that far-fetched and already, doctors and scientists use some form of gene-selection during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, refers to the practice of screening IVF embryos both for disease and for gender selection. Using this process, scientists can remove the defective mitochondria (the ‘powerhouse’ of cells) from an embryo and replace it with healthy mitochondria from a donor egg, and in this way they can effectively ‘design’ babies without certain diseases. Of course, the process doesn’t work for all diseases, and they can actually use this process for non-medical preferences too, such as the gender of the resulting child. Both forms of PGD are currently legal in the US, although the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists frowns upon the latter use, arguing that by allowing parents to choose the gender of their child, we run the risk of increasing sex discrimination.
There is more to come though. Dr. Tony Perry of the University of Bath in the UK was one of the first scientists to clone mice and pigs, and he claims that more in-depth DNA editing is on its way. It won’t be long, he says, until we can pick and choose which parts of our baby’s DNA that we want to cut out and potentially replace with new pieces of gene-code. In fact, it’s already begun. Earlier this year, scientists in China took discarded IVF embryos and began experiments to correct the abnormal gene that causes the blood disorder beta thalassemia. Even though these embryos were due to be destroyed, the experiments incited much controversy. Whilst few would argue against potential disease eradication, this technique could be used to alter healthy genes too and the real question is how far would be too far?
A Sci-Fi Nightmare
Whilst used primarily in terms of disease at the moment, these techniques lend themselves to being used to select certain character traits of babies: alter a gene here for blue eyes or add some genetic code there to ensure musical talent. It is this possibility that frightens people and brings to mind the stark warnings of countless dystopian novels and movies. Would such alterations lead to a dual society, with one layer of rich and elite enhanced human beings and another of poor sub-beings, those who can’t afford to pick and choose the genes of their children? And whilst the concept at the moment is entirely voluntary, what if the technique fell into the wrong hands? Those of a dictator or villain who forced embryos to be altered in a specific way. These are undoubtedly worst-case scenarios and for the time being at least, remain firmly within the realms of science fiction but for now, there are more realistic yet just as fearsome dangers to consider.
One of the main issues here is that the debate is just so new. As science progresses at an astonishing rate, so we step into uncharted territory and find ourselves in quite a conundrum. One of the most prevailing questions in the designer baby debate is that of psychology – are we opening up our children to psychological issues that we could only imagine? Thomas H Murray, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center in New York suggests that the parents of children who have gone through this process will have “potentially tyrannical expectations over what the child will be or do”, and that there could be a huge burden on children to become what their parents chose for them before they were even born.
There are other psychological issues too. A trait that is highly desirable at the moment may, in the future, become worthless – or even a liability. Likewise, qualities tend to be inter-related and genes complexly inter-woven. Altering one quality, then, could have adverse and potentially disastrous effects on the inter-linked qualities – if one skill goes up, does another go down? Ultimately though, it’s important to remember that design isn’t everything – the development of talent and skill takes nurture and practice and self-discipline too, which begs the question: why alter the genes in the first place?
It’s Not All in the Head
There are potential physical difficulties too. By genetically modifying humans to eradicate negative traits, there is a risk of limiting the gene pool and reducing genetic diversity could severely limit humanity’s ability to survive and adapt in new climates. There is also a chance that, as the gene pool shrinks, so the incidence of genetic flaws or negative inherited traits become more common, thus creating inbreeding. In a similar way, because we are altering DNA, these changes would be passed through the generations and this may not always be a good thing – for example, mistakes and errors in calculations and changes would also be passed down and would potentially be unfixable.
A Futuristic Eugenics
Many argue then, that genetically modifying humans in this way is simply modern eugenics – a set of beliefs and practices that are generally frowned upon. Originally achieved through enforced sterilization and harsh reproduction laws, the eugenics of today may be more technologically advanced but aren’t they, ultimately, the same thing? Not at all, says Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University. Traditional eugenics is more about one group of people exerting control over another, usually minority, group. PGD and DNA editing, on the other hand, would allow the parents to choose not only what genetic altering they would want but whether they would want it at all. Of course, there is always a risk of that science-fiction villain rearing his head again but for the time being, genetic modification of embryos is entirely voluntary.
An Ethical Choice
Professor Savulescu, however, takes it one step further. DNA editing is not only permissible, he argues, but it’s also a morally right choice: “indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children”. Perhaps, he goes on to suggest, it is simply the modern equivalent to responsible parenting.
He’s not the only one to make this case either. Bonnie Steinbock, a philosopher at the University of Albany, State University of New York, suggests that genetically modifying embryos for specific traits is no different from a parent offering special tuition or nurturing specific skills once the child is born. John Robertson, a Law and Bioethics Professor at the University of Texas likewise argues that if, out of four potential embryos, one has a much sought-after trait, then ultimately, there is no reason why a parent should not be allowed to choose that one over the others.
The debate and controversy around designer babies and the future of a genetically modified humanity is huge. There is a whirlpool of ideas and opinions, excitement and warnings, and fact and fiction that, like any decent debate, is hard to pick through. The idea of altering human beings at a genetic level may seem like the plot from a frightening dystopian novel but it’s becoming closer and closer to reality and actually, it may not be as scary as it first seemed. The screening and eradication of disease before it even has the chance to develop is a marvel of modern science and whilst editing a child’s traits and talents before they are born seems like a slippery slope today, a future in which it is not only accepted but is the norm can be easily envisioned.
 Tia Ghose, 2014, Children to Order: The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies’, [online], Available at: http://www.livescience.com/44087-designer-babies-ethics.html [accessed 11/17/2015]
 Linda Blair, 2015, Designer Babies: Are They Flawed?, [online], Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/designer-babies/ [accessed 11/17/2015]
 Tia Ghose, op. cit.
 Linda Blair, op. cit.
 National Garden Association, 1999, The Importance of Genetic Diversity, [online], Available at: http://assoc.garden.org/courseweb/course2/week2/page18.htm [accessed 11/1/2015]
 Richard Alleyne, 2015, Genetically Engineering ‘Ethical’ Babies is a Moral Obligation, Say Oxford Professor, [online]. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/9480372/Genetically-engineering-ethical-babies-is-a-moral-obligation-says-Oxford-professor.html [accessed 11/17/2015]
 Richard Alleyne, op. cit.
 Tia Ghose, op. cit.
Designer Babies: Is Gene Selection ever acceptable? by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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