The ethics behind creating the perfect child
Congratulations! It’s a baby boy. His name? Jack — why not? Totally healthy; big, blue eyes; towheaded; dimples; flawless, white skin like freshly churned cream. Perfection.
But by whose definition?
Popular culture builds a social construction that revolves around baby boy Jack, and we see him everywhere: Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio — the list, and the emulation, goes on. One day, parents may suddenly find themselves with the unsettling capability to make a choice to dream up their perfect child. If they’re willing to cough up the cash, they could make it a reality. Not surprisingly, parents seem to want to take the best qualities (“best” meaning “prettiest” and “healthiest”) and fuse them together to create perfection embodied in a child.
Rewind the tapes a couple of billion years.
We humans love to short-change mother nature, snub her and tell her she doesn’t know Jack. But she does. She knows Jack quite well, and she knows that in all his glorious “perfection,” Jack just might be the last thing the human race needs. Natural selection can be a good thing, undeserving of being thrown to the wayside by new age technologies.
The process of genetic Preimplantation Genetics Diagnosis, or PGD, is a combination of in vitro fertilization and selective genetic screening. At its best, it is used to drastically reduce the chance of genetic disease passing through to the next generation. At its worst, it could potentially be used to design babies in the same way you order an American Girl Doll.
Leann Kanda, assistant professor of biology at Ithaca College, has no qualms with PDG when it is used for medically relevant reasons.
“Doing preimplantation diagnosis on serious health issues, I do not see (PDG) as being either ethically problematic or really having any impact on the larger evolutionary scenario,” Kanda said.
Different scenarios lead to different dilemmas surrounding PDG. Kanda believes that a lethal prognosis from the genetic screening is one thing, but the lines begin to blur when an embryo is identified as being subject to a disability like deafness, for example.
“The collection of cells with a genetic defect that is going to lead to that human having a poor quality of life [may be terminated]. I do not have objection to that,” Kanda said. “The place where it starts to get slippery is when you ask what is poor quality of life.”
Dr. William Kearns, geneticist and director at The Center for Preimplantation Genetics and associate professor at John Hopkins University, has a similar take on PDG when implemented to secure quality of future life for an embryo.
“To me, if there’s an embryo that’s infected with a catastrophic carrying disorder, if that became a baby and the baby would die, I am OK with not transferring that. I am OK with that not growing up,” Kearns said. “One just has to be very consistent in their beliefs. Again, we’re talking about catastrophic lethal disorders—we’re not talking about minor things.”
The Center for Preimplantation Genetics is a lab where preimplantation genetic testing takes place. The center takes embryos created through in vitro fertilization and determines everything from the sexes of the embryos to whether they carry debilitating genetic diseases or single gene disorders, like cystic fibrosis. Kearns conducts medical genetics consults with the couples after the embryonic screening process to go over risks, benefits and expectations in accordance with test results.
In the event that an embryo receives a damning diagnosis, the parents must then face the uncomfortable decision of what to do about it.
“When people talk about that, this is what I say to them: ‘I am Catholic, I’m a Republican, I’m conservative, and I mess around with embryos, and I’m confused all the time.’ They laugh, and then we talk about it,” Kearns said.
The Center for Preimplantation Genetics is a reference lab, not a clinic, so Kearns takes part in the conversation surrounding this decision, but does not take part in the action afterwards.
“I don’t want to bias them because of my beliefs, but I think they should hear some examples from both sides of the story and then they can make their decision,” Kearns said. “In vitro clinics around the world dispose of embryos, and I’m not saying it’s right — I don’t agree with disposing of embryos. I have a very strong belief that we need to be very careful of the ethics of what we do.”
Ian Woods, associate professor of developmental biology at Ithaca College, acknowledges the benefit of PGD as it stands, as well as the dangerous road it is slowly beginning to take.
“I think the benefits of doing [PGD] far outweigh the drawbacks. If you have breast cancer running in your family and you know that’s genetic, or you have colon cancer and you have watched your parents or siblings die of these diseases, I think it’s definitely worthwhile to make sure that your kids don’t also go through that,” Woods said. “This idea of selecting gender, however—I think that’s getting a little too close to a slippery slope.”
That slippery slope is the dilemma that arises when parents begin to create designer babies with no medical justification. A 2006 study by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine found that 42 percent of clinics offering PGD services have also offered sex-selection services with no medical necessity. According to a New York University School of Medicine survey, 10 percent of participants showed a desire for genetic testing for athletic ability, 10 percent for increased height and 13 percent for intelligence screening. Woods said today genetic selection is still limited to what genes are already available in the embryo.
“I think there’s kind of a misconception when people think about designer babies. You can have your little laundry list of things you wish your baby would be like: athletic, musical, tall, smart, whatever, but we’re not to the point where we can actually introduce those genes into the embryos,” Woods said. “What we’re dealing with is the variation that’s already there. In the scientific realm, it is already possible to introduce outside genes into an embryo and see what happens. It’s not that hard to do with these organisms which are not that different from humans, it’s probably theoretically possible, but I don’t know of anybody who is interested in doing that.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, a Los Angeles clinic claimed the ability to offer cosmetic genetic selection in 2009. Some experts in the field believe it is already possible to genetically alter embryos to meet the cosmetic desires of parents, and others like Woods believe PDG could one day reach full Barbie building potential. For now, there is too little interest and funding for it to be in the near future. With such limited demand, Woods said, the technology will not receive the push it needs. Due to our relatively limited knowledge in regards to gene selection and its repercussions, that might not be the worst thing.
Sex selection has already been achieved, Woods said, and even that scientific advancement is unsettling.
“I mean, is that OK? It’s probably not OK in some societies where, already due to whatever reasons, there’s a really big gender imbalance,” Woods said. “If technology were made available widespread, we might see even more problems in that sense.”
Kearns also finds the deliberate, non-medically supported decision to choose one gender over the other to be disturbing.
“I don’t believe in non-medical sex selection,” Kearns said. “I am very much against that… I would argue that if one wants to do sex selection, then they should have to donate the other embryos to somebody else.”
The notion that gender selection is already available leads to considerations of what might happen if genetic screening and selection goes even further in the future.
“It’s hard to know what would happen,” Woods said. “What I would be concerned about more is what other traits would be kind of carried on as baggage with whatever you’re selecting for. I see danger in that. I cannot make any firm predictions about what kind of ways that that danger will be manifested. But I worry mainly about personality traits. If you’re looking at selecting for the tallest, most athletic, best-looking males, you’re probably also selecting for aggression and risk-taking. So you wonder if you’re going to bring a lot of that along.”
Kanda added that when taken from a practical point of view, this heavy-handed selection process may lead to a variety of unexpected results.
“If we’re going to design, there is this difficulty of pheliotropic effects, that one gene doesn’t just do one thing,” Kanda said.
If parents were given the choice to design their children, they would undoubtedly choose what they feel to be the best biological set-up as possible. Societal pressures might dictate what “best” is. Except in this scenario we are no longer just talking what’s on your TV screen. Now we’re talking what you might have the tendency to choose to create.
“How many people would be choosing that norm and how many people — given the options — because they are starting out with their own genetic profile, would they just be orienting toward what they personally wished that they could have been? That, I think, is even more terrifying in terms of practical implications,” Kanda said. “I would find it personally, ethically repugnant. You take some of the more obvious things we discriminate against: sexual orientation, skin color, those things. And say OK, if somebody were deliberately choosing to raise an embryo that had this skin color versus that or this orientation versus that, there is part of me that would scream foul. You are right from the get-go discriminating against that kind of being.”
Kanda also challenges the idea that designing a baby would work out, if we ever got to that point.
“I think giving people that level of predestination expectations would have really hideous effects on that family’s social structure,” she said.
For now, genetic science is limited to screening and selecting for disease and gender. For now, baby boy Jack will grow up with his parents hoping he becomes a charming, intelligent, athletic go-getter. They’ll do everything they can to teach him how to win in life. He isn’t all that special — he isn’t a designer baby armed with genetic preconditions to take over the world, for good or for worse. His odds are as good as anyone’s, for now.
Kerry Tcacik is a junior journalism major who wants to design her future baby to look like the love child of Ryan Gosling and Mila Kunis. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org