Saturday, March 7, 2009

Forget Designer Baby Bags—Now There’s Designer Babies

During the last few decades, research in reproductive technology has been advancing at lightning speeds, and at each juncture along the way—the first “test tube” babies, donor eggs used in post-menopausal women, sperm sorting to choose a baby’s gender, embryo selection to provide donor material for an ill sibling, embryo selection to eliminate the possibility of inherited disease—the question is raised of how much is too much. What is “acceptable” science and medicine? Who decides?

These questions roared back into the headlines this week after the Los Angeles Fertility Institutes announced plans to allow prospective parents to choose the gender, eye, hair, skin color, and other physical traits of their babies. The service will cost $18,000 per baby and will be available only to couples seeking in-vitro fertilization. The clinic says they have already received five or six requests for the service and expect the first “designer baby” to be born next year.

Trait-selection will be based on a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, created in the 1990s so that parents who carried genes for life-threatening diseases could be assured of having healthy children. Embryos created by IVF are tested at the three-day stage to see if they carry a particular disease, and only those free of that disease are implanted in the mother’s womb. Theoretically, one could look for any gene in those embryos.

A recent survey of 999 people who sought genetic counseling conducted by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine suggests the majority of people support the notion of building a better baby when it comes to eliminating serious diseases. The survey found that 56 percent supported using prenatal genetic tests to counter blindness and 75 percent for mental retardation. About 10 percent of respondents said they would want genetic testing for athletic ability, another 10 percent voted for improved height, and nearly 13 percent backed the approach to select for superior intelligence.

The clinic’s director, Jeff Steinberg, who played a key role in the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in Britain in 1978, says his clinic uncovered the technology to characterize genetic traits like eye and hair color while trying to screen out albinism, a congenital disorder which leads to lack of melanin pigment in the eyes, hair and skin. “Of course, once I’ve got this science, am I not to provide this to my patients? I’m a physician. I want to provide everything science gives me to my patients,” Steinberg said.

However, other fertility specialists are outraged by the clinic’s proposal to offer trait selection. “It’s ridiculous and irresponsible,” said Mark Hughes, one of the pioneers of PGD. “There are thousands of desperate couples who have no hope of having healthy children without this technology, and here we are talking about this.”

“The concern is that we’ll be creating a society with new sorts of discrimination," said Marcy Darnovsky, director of the Center for Genetics and Society. “Now it’s eye and hair color. What happens if it’s height and intelligence? Some parents may have qualms, but still feel under pressure.”

Dr. Gillian Lockwood, a UK fertility expert and member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ ethics committee, told the BBC that she questions whether it is morally right to use science this way. “If it gets to the point where we can decide which gene or combination of genes are responsible for blue eyes or blonde hair, what are you going to do with all those other embryos that turn out like me to be ginger with green eyes,” she said. Lockwood said Steinberg’s clinics could lead to “turning babies into commodities that you buy off the shelf.”

Steinberg countered that reproductive technologies aren’t about to go away. “Genetic health is the wave of the future,” he said. “It’s already happening and it’s not going to go away. It’s going to expand. So if they’ve got major problems with it, they need to sit down and really examine their own consciences because there’s nothing that’s going to stop it.”