A Patented Process Has Been Approved, Cue Moral Outrage Over ‘Designer Babies’
Last week, the California company 23andMe was awarded a patent on a tool they created that allows people to see what kind of traits their children might inherit from them. Although the company has denied plans to use this tool in conjunction with fertility clinics, some critics insist that this is the first step toward a brave new world where the privileged few get to calculate the traits of their future offspring.
From the 23andMe blog:
We offer parents a chance to look at the traits and conditions they might pass onto their children, something that many couples attempt to do without using genetics. Rather they look to their observable traits and medical histories within their own families. For example, prospective parents may be curious as to whether their children will have blue eyes or brown, or curly hair or a dimpled chin. Couples may also want to know about more serious conditions and risks that sometimes run in families. 23andMe offers a chance to use genetics to look at both traits and other inherited conditions.
Critics are worried that such a patent will be used in fertility clinics as a way for parents to pick and choose the traits their offspring will have, giving birth to “designer babies.” The company has stated it “never pursued the idea and has no plans to do so.” Some critics don’t believe them:
A commentary in Genetics and Medicine published on Oct. 3 also warned against parents using the technology to hand-pick genes for their children. The authors called the practice “ethically controversial.”
“The use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to avoid implantation of embryos bearing serious genetic abnormalities is by now becoming commonplace, but a computerized process for selecting gamete donors to achieve a baby with a ‘phenotype of interest’ that the prospective parent ‘desires in his/her hypothetical offspring,’ as 23andMe puts it, seems to have much broader implications, for this process also entails the selection of traits that are not disease related,” they wrote.
It seems that people are comfortable with the idea of using genetic tools to avoid disease, but not comfortable with the idea of using them to choose things such as hair or eye color.
I think scientific progress is a good thing. I just get uncomfortable with the idea that this tool – if eventually used for the purpose the company is denying – will only be available to those who can afford it. Is genetically engineering healthier, more athletic super-babies on the horizon for the wealthy? The implications of that are pretty disturbing – but maybe I’ve just seen to many science fiction movies.
The Genetics and Medicine authors agreed that the science isn’t exact quite yet.
“In 23andMe’s favor, we must point out that what is claimed is not a cast-iron, fool-proof method guaranteeing that the eventual child will have all the phenotypic traits on the parents’ shopping list, an impossible task, but merely a method of improving the chances that the baby has the ‘right’ characteristics,” they wrote.
The “right” characteristics? I guess it’s not hard to see why some people find this unsettling.