Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why I Love Designer Babies

Perhaps I should say I love the topic of designer babies, which is why I was pleased to read Gautam Naik’s provocative article, “A Baby, Please. Blond, Freckles -- Hold the Colic” in the Wall Street Journal today. Naik points out that this technology is nearer than we think; he reports on a Los Angeles clinic which will soon help couples select both gender and physical traits in a baby when they undergo a form of fertility treatment. Researchers from Harvard to Stanford and around the world are working hard to make genetic modification a reality. Are we ready?

Genetic modification and selection raises a number of issues that we at the Women’s Bioethics Project believe should be at the forefront of any good bioethics discussion. Here’s why:

1) It’s a hive of ethical issues
Genetic modification and selection raises a whole slew of ethical issues: how we view our children; where we draw the line at enhancement v. therapeutic applications of the technology; the issues of safety, access, and social justice; and the potential eugenic applications, just to name a few.

2) The technology isn’t here yet
Because the technology isn’t available yet, there is still a chance to consider the implications before wide-spread use. A tremendous amount of scientific progress in the area of cloning has been made since the 1997 announcement that a sheep had been successfully cloned; cloned primates and pets and the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells and human-nonhuman chimeras are just a few of the scientific discoveries that get us closer every day to the prospect of a genetically modified child.

3) We all have a stake in the issue
The ability to radically alter human reproduction raises fundamental questions regarding the nature of our humanity and the character of our society. All of us, whether we choose the use the technology or not, have a stake in the genetic modification of children and we need to engage in conversation on these issues now.

4) Questions raised go beyond designer babies
I love the topic of designer babies because difficult questions need to be asked about all kinds of emerging technologies from nanotechnology to therapeutic and reproductive human cloning. It can be overwhelming, but the only thing we can count on is change–that the nature of the technology will evolve while the challenges remain.

Moving forward
As we discuss genetic modification, we must remember that this not just an interesting a moral philosophical exercise—our elected representatives will be developing a national science policy on the use of genetic modification technologies in the next few years. As citizens, we’ll be asked to vote on the use of these technologies. What factors do we want policy makers to keep in mind as they decide the future of genetic engineering? There are several policy options to consider:

Banning - Should we ban it? The use of this technology is currently not prohibited in the US, Russia, and China. While many countries are currently considering legislation that would ban genetic modification of children, it has been fully banned in 44 countries around the world, including Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Costa Rica and Japan.

Regulating - Should we regulate the technology to allow only certain applications? Many believe there may be acceptable uses of genetic modification in the future, but want to be sure that appropriate limitations are set, through government or other oversight, to ensure safe and ethical use. Should we regulate any proposed form of genetic engineering if, when widespread, it has a harmful effect on individuals and society? If so, who determines what that threshold is?

Promoting – Should we promote the widespread use of this technology? Some believe that genetic modification holds tremendous promise for preventing genetic diseases and that society should pursue policies to promote or encourage its use in the future, despite what other sideline “designer” applications are developed as a result.

It’s time to get the conversation going. What are your thoughts?


Unknown said...

Well formulated challenge, and it is huge, and you might add "Ms Octuplets" as an additional case requring addressing, and who raises the question of whether we ought to regulate norms to avoid the occasional extremes. It is worth noting that in vitro has been available for, say, 30 years now, and there have been remarkably few major issues: rare cases of surrogacy in which the donor wants her baby "back"; Ms Octuplets.
That provides some comfort that most people still consider the act of creation mysterious enough, and tinkering scary enough, that there will not be a enormous "abuses", depending on what we call an "abuse", and thus unlikely to have any impact on the diversity of the gene pool. And, speaking of diversity, one might suspect that there is sufficient diversity among those who might "select" that they will select for different genders or traits anyhow. Take, eg., eye color: in Ireland, those who "select" might go for "eyes as dark as coals", whereas in India, they might go for green eyes like their current beauty queen actress.
Cosmetic choices may be repugnant to some, but so are other behaviors that we accept as a society. And, if there are genes for schizophrenia--a disease that hits in adolescence and results in extraordinary pain for the victim and many others--is selecting against it inherently a bad idea?

Linda MacDonald Glenn said...

So much of this discussion hinges upon the 'therapy vs enhancement' debate -- what constitutes ‘therapy’ and what constitutes ‘enhancement’ may at first
seem clear cut -- Therapy is for healing the sick and relieving the suffering; enhancement is meant to augment or improve the “normal” workings of the human body and psyche.
But as the President’s Council on Bioethics recognized, the terms ‘therapy’ and ‘enhancement’ can be overlapping. For example,
Many therapeutic interventions can and are used later on for non-therapeutic purposes.

Another good question to ask is just how far do parents' rights go when it come to their children and designing or choosing their attributes -- the Hastings' Center just came out with a report on this:

I just ordered it and am looking forward to reading this!

Michael Orenstein MD said...

Joel Feinberg used to speak about the child's right to an open future. In choosing certain traits, just to please parents, we limit the pathways of opportunity for the next generation of children. A couple who were both lesbian and deaf designed a deaf child on purpose by choosing a sperm donor with a family history of deafness for 5 generations. With preimplantation genetic diagnosis, designer babies will become available for all who can afford it. Will it then be ethical to select on the basis of gender? How about blue eyes? Will children subsequentally blame their parents for choosing them as "imperfect specimens?"