Designer babies

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Describe the process and perceptions of 'Designer babies'.

(Please let me know if any information in this essay is incorrect and must be changed. The general description of the types of modern genetic engineering is loose, but this is in order to focus on the philosophy of the process rather than the physical science).

Submitted: August 15, 2013

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Submitted: August 15, 2013



The term “designer baby” is an informal name given to a baby whose genetic makeup has been altered by means of genetic engineering. This term was originally derived from ‘designer clothing’, implying that the baby has been pieced together with desired ‘traits’ or characteristics according to the direction of those that hold with them the power to change a baby before it is born. This may be the parents, scientists or doctors. Currently, it is a technology in its early stages, used to screen embryos and select those with desirable traits for implantation into a mother. However, as it slowly advances and possibilities begin to reveal themselves, parties for and against have rallied about the moral rights and wrongs of this kind of technology, and question whose welfare it is really benefiting through this procedure: the parents or the child’s?

The world’s first designer baby was born in 2000, a ‘test tube baby’ named Adam Nash. He was altered by use of a technique called the pre-implantation process and was reportedly born to save an older sibling’s life who suffered from a low blood count disorder, in dire need of a bone marrow transplant. His birth followed a much earlier one, conducted successfully in 1978 when the world’s first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was introduced to the world. Her birth was less complex, in that her genes remained untouched and instead she simply gestated in a uterus after being transplanted through the in vitro fertilisation process. However, the Nash family sparked an ethical debate over the alteration and use of a baby’s genes, a debate that has since grown in argumentative evidence of the reasons for and against the development of the possibility of world-wide lawful altering of babies’ genes. Since Adam Nash was born, in spite of parties such as Dr William Kearns and Dr Mark Hughes, who are strongly against genetic engineering of infant genes for trait selection, further designer babies have been born. Dr Jeff Steinberg, who as a young medic was involved with the team that delivered Louise Brown, is an example of an undeterred party backing the process of embryo selection and genetic modification of embryos.

He tells the Sunday Telegraph (28 Feb, 2009): “It’s incredibly exciting. I live in LA and everyone here wants to have a straight nose and high cheekbones and [they] are perfectly happy to pay for cosmetic surgery. I understand the trepidation and concerns, but we cannot escape the fact that science is moving forward. If I have to get smacked around by people who think it is inappropriate, then I'm willing to live with that."

Since this statement, his clinic has strived to develop technology from genetic observation and cosmetic surgery in order to pick physical traits of unborn children. This includes hair, eye and skin colour and physical capabilities.

Dr William Kearns, a leading geneticist, outlined the advances in technology and how the world of science has now grasped the ability to prevent fatal diseases in unborn children. However, Dr Steinberg’s leaps in making trait and embryo selection available have outraged Dr Kearns.

“Steinberg has jumped on my research but I'm totally against this. My goal is to screen embryos to help couples have healthy babies free of genetic diseases. Traits are not diseases."

A positive aspect to this new technology is that genetic diseases, which are laced within a parents own genes transferred to offspring, can be potentially eradicated by selecting healthy embryos for implantation. This can further be developed to eliminate specific genes within an embryo in order to protect and immunise future generations from fatal genetic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, breast cancer and cystic fibrosis. Upon locating and removing the genes that contain these diseases, a child can live a life of further longevity and with less chance of contracting other diseases or illnesses over time. If this technology becomes a common procedure in the pregnancy process, a new generation of healthy and strong humans will be able to reproduce, while genetic diseases will not be a threat to life. In this way, genetic modification of embryos, or ‘designer babies’, are a positive step into securing a strong and healthy future.

The current technology used in IVF clinics has the capacity to do many things that alter the life of an unborn child. IVF clinics can observe cells in embryos to discover which embryos have genetic diseases or other harmful traits. This technology can also be used to find the sex of each embryo, and transplant a specific gender of baby into a mother. It is illegal in Australia to choose the sex of a child, but many people travel overseas and meet with IVF clinicians in order to have baby boys or girls. Dr Mark Bowman, an IVF clinician who took part in the debate 'There is nothing wrong with designer babies', spoke of the increasing number of distressed mothers or parents who, after a number of male children born into their family, desperately wish to have a female baby. He spoke of the fragile state in which many mothers consult him on the topic and told the audience that to turn them away with a “Slap on the wrist” is unprofessional and heartless. This aspect of genetic selection is completely private, a problem faced by parents and addressed by professional IVF doctors, and something that if it were legal in Australia would help a large number of families deal with the emotional distress caused by failure to deliver a gender desired. In this way, designer babies are a concept needed to restore gender balance in some families, as well as ensuring health and well-being of those children.

Genetic modification of unborn children has the potential to evolve from this current technology into one that will allow parents to choose what they wish their child to look like or be able to do. It is a common misconception among anti-GM engineering parties, upon hearing the term ‘designer babies’, that this technology is already available. It is argued by Dr Mark Bowman in a debate ‘There is nothing wrong with designer babies’, that scientists do not have the capacity to choose the physical characteristics of babies before they are born. There is no way to determine eye colour, hair colour or other physical traits of a child; however, this technology is within the foreseeable future among IVF clinicians. To design babies would be to allow parents to choose their children’s capabilities according to their cultural perspective of perfection. Parents can give birth to and raise children who will fit into their culture and way of living, as well as enhancing their quality of life. For example, if a parent were able to enhance a child’s mental capacity, and following the birth placing them in a private and challenging school in order to help them utilise that mental ability, they are physically giving their children the benefit of an intellectual upbringing which would greatly advantage them in the modern world. This type of genetic engineering, although not readily in use as of yet, will greatly advantage children to have a fulfilling and satisfying life with intellectual careers that will also advantage modern science. This genetic engineering may become essential to the evolution of humanity into a new era of advanced ability, physically and mentally.

Consequently, there are many faults with these ideas put forth. While the eradication of genetic diseases is an exciting revolution, one that should not by any means be prevented, it poses a threat to the socioeconomic balance of our world. For example: the disabled, who have been struck with disease since birth, may be put even further down the ladder of social hierarchies. By being given a choice of changing one’s baby to be healthy, what status would a disabled person be given, being unable to match the ‘new and improved’ human race? For a child whose parents decided against genetic engineering, living with a disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, there is high chance they will be seen as inferior and useless, unable to contribute to the world as intellectual citizens. The example of ALS was given to remind the reader of an important scientist who has made countless breakthroughs in the world of science despite his condition: Steven Hawking. Although his condition developed slowly, and did not fully activate until the age of twenty-one, Steven Hawking retained this disease within his DNA all his life. Had he been born into a world of advanced intellectual and physical humans, would he have been able to contribute as much as he has presently as a child born with the rare condition of ‘disability’? And by the use of genetic screening in order to depict which embryos carry diseases, had his parents used this method of IVF Steven Hawking would not exist today. Therefore, genetic modification, while exciting and innovative in many ways, can be considered a science in need of restrictions to prevent dramatic inequalities to arise between the disabled and the advanced.

Following this idea, IVF is already a highly expensive procedure as it is. If it were to be developed into a science of designing babies, it stands to reason that middle-class citizens and lower will not have the chance to choose their children to the extent that the rich and famous would have the power of doing. Certain traits may be deemed more precious, therefore more expensive, than others and henceforth presenting a new kind of social divide between humans; the beautiful, rare characteristics rising to the top of social hierarchies while those with less desirable traits would be oppressed to the base of the pyramid. Humans have already developed the accepted perception of perfection, and those with good genes are lucky in that they are immediately ‘better than everyone else’, simply by being beautiful or naturally talented. It is a question of sheer luck that some will find themselves above everyone else by natural means, while others will be raised in poverty. If this were to be influenced, or enhanced further, the concept of beauty will divide the human race furthermore, undermining those that, under other circumstances, may actually have great potential to contribute to society. This technology has been developed to protect the lives of children, not to present yet another way of sorting out the great from the average or lesser. In the words of Dr William Kearns: “My goal is to screen embryos to help couples have healthy babies free of genetic diseases. Traits are not diseases.”

One of the most controversial arguments raised in this ethical debate is that of the child’s welfare: What of its own rights? Where does one draw the line between what the parent wants, and what the child needs? In hypothetical terms, in a time when this technology is available and is used commonly during the pregnancy process, a child may be born to save an older sibling suffering from a certain cancer. Presently, there are cases in which this is already a necessary action. Adam Nash, as mentioned earlier, was a genetic match for his older sister who was dying from a rare type of leukaemia. He was born so his bone marrow could be used in a transfusion to save his sister at a critical stage. Although she lived through the operation, there was no guarantee that she would survive the cancer and be free of it completely thereafter. This would mean that the donor child, in this case Adam may be subjected to a life of constant blood donations and regular visits to the hospital. Is this the right way to raise a child? To place on them the expectation that they will always be at hand when their sibling needs blood or in fact an organ— the donor child did not ask to be born, but in the case that they have been, how far would a parent go, and how much would a parent take from this donor child, to ensure the safety of the sibling? Their path in life has been controlled to turn them into someone they may not necessarily wish to be. The relationship between parent and offspring could be jeopardized in the way that if a parent is able to control the child’s life before they are even able to consider what they want for themselves, the child may soon become less of an actual human being and more of a tool that could be manipulated and whose rights abused. It is not a charming ideal, but that makes it no less possible. This science must move forward slowly, and restrictively in order to respect the rights of the parent and eventual baby.

To rewind this discussion to the very beginning, to strip away the possibilities and hypothetical cases, and the vast future advances in technology, this case comes down to moral rights and wrongs. With our current technology that is able to select specific embryos for implantation into a mother, what are the moral wrongs in the use of this science? To repeat an argument made earlier, by selecting specific embryos and discarding the rest, a parent is disallowing a life to be lived. A life that has the potential to be brilliant, such is the case of Steven Hawking. Another scientist can be used as an example, brought to light by David Weisbrot in the debate 'There is nothing wrong with designer babies'. This scientist was curious to see his own genetic make-up, and underwent a procedure that screened his DNA, in order to find potential genetic mutilations and diseases within his DNA. This man found hundreds of problematic diseases that, had his parents used genetic screening during birth, would have meant that he would not exist. Ironically, that man is James Watson, Nobel Prize winner for his investigations and detailed model of the human gene. One can never fully disregard the possibility that one of those lives not picked might have proven to be an important figure in society.

After examining these cases, one might draw the conclusion that is split between the two arguments. It is acceptable to select embryos free of genetic diseases, to protect the lives of children, and to gender balance one’s family. However, this is where GM engineering of humans, and characteristic selection should stop. There is no way to fully assess the damage that could be caused by designer babies in the future, however far away that reality may be.

‘Designer babies’ is a poor term for the current state of IVF clinical procedure. It is used by parents, scientists and doctors by way of testing for genetic diseases and eradicating them, and to selectively breed gender specific embryos. Designer babies are a new technology that will advance further over time, but upon entering this stage of scientific investigations, there must and will always be parties for and against, in order to ensure people will use this technology fully informed of the risks, for themselves, their baby, and their world.



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