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Designer babies: an ethical horror waiting to happen?

by Philip BallThe Guardian
January 8th, 2017

A young baby is fully dressed and sits in front of a laptop, interacting with the keyboard.

Untitled Document

Nearly 40 years since the first ‘test-tube baby’, how close are we to editing out all of our genetic imperfections – and should we even try to do so?

Comfortably seated in the fertility clinic with Vivaldi playing softly in the background, you and your partner are brought coffee and a folder. Inside the folder is an embryo menu. Each embryo has a description, something like this:

Embryo 78 – male
• No serious early onset diseases, but a carrier for phenylketonuria (a metabolic malfunction that can cause behavioural and mental disorders. Carriers just have one copy of the gene, so don’t get the condition themselves).
• Higher than average risk of type 2 diabetes and colon cancer.
• Lower than average risk of asthma and autism.
• Dark eyes, light brown hair, male pattern baldness.
• 40% chance of coming in the top half in SAT tests.

There are 200 of these embryos to choose from, all made by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) from you and your partner’s eggs and sperm. So, over to you. Which will you choose?

If there’s any kind of future for “designer babies”, it might look something like this. It’s a long way from the image conjured up when artificial conception, and perhaps even artificial gestation, were first mooted as a serious scientific possibility. Inspired by predictions about the future of reproductive technology by the biologists JBS Haldane and Julian Huxley in the 1920s, Huxley’s brother Aldous wrote a satirical novel about it.

That book was, of course, Brave New World, published in 1932. Set in the year 2540, it describes a society whose population is grown in vats in an impersonal central hatchery, graded into five tiers of different intelligence by chemical treatment of the embryos. There are no parents as such – families are considered obscene. Instead, the gestating fetuses and babies are tended by workers in white overalls, “their hands gloved with a pale corpse‑coloured rubber”, under white, dead lights.

Brave New World has become the inevitable reference point for all media discussion of new advances in reproductive technology. Whether it’s Newsweek reporting in 1978 on the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test-tube baby” (the inaccurate phrase speaks volumes) as a “cry round the brave new world”, or the New York Times announcing “The brave new world of three-parent IVF” in 2014, the message is that we are heading towards Huxley’s hatchery with its racks of tailor-made babies in their “numbered test tubes”.

The spectre of a harsh, impersonal and authoritarian dystopia always looms in these discussions of reproductive control and selection. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, whose 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, described children produced and reared as organ donors, last month warned that thanks to advances in gene editing, “we’re coming close to the point where we can, objectively in some sense, create people who are superior to others”.

But the prospect of genetic portraits of IVF embryos paints a rather different picture. If it happens at all, the aim will be not to engineer societies but to attract consumers. Should we allow that? Even if we do, would a list of dozens or even hundreds of embryos with diverse yet sketchy genetic endowments be of any use to anyone?

Continue reading the full article on The Guardian...

Image via Public Domain Pictures

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