In a scenario that sounds eerily like a science fiction movie plot, designer babies could soon become an everyday reality. Families will conceive children through genetic selection – choosing superior characteristics and reducing susceptibility to genetic diseases. Britain’s most respected medical body has given the green light to genetically engineering embryos for non-medical reasons. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics said that there should be no fundamental moral bar to parents genetically modifying their children, provided certain criteria were followed.
The discussion about the ethics of designer babies has been brought into sharp focus by this news and the development of a technology called Crispr-Cas9 that “makes it remarkably simple to directly tinker with the human genome (the DNA sequence) of an early embryo”, says Wired magazine. When combined with IVF, these new genetic tools allow scientists to change the DNA, which is the blueprint of a human embryo, when it consists of just one or a few cells.
In a society like India where sex determination before birth is banned because of strong cultural preferences for the male child, the era of designer babies could lead to a further deterioration of the sex ratio. Instead of having to determine gender once the embryo is conceived, parents could choose to engineer it before conception and evade the law.
Although technical hurdles remain, “advances in gene editing mean that it is possible to contemplate a time when embryos can be modified so that genetic diseases, or even genetic predispositions to disease, are eliminated”, reports The Times, a scenario you witnessed in 1997 science fiction film Gattaca.
- Since many diseases are caused by a single genetic mutation, those in favour ask why we shouldn’t edit the DNA of an embryo or the sperm and egg to remove the mutation entirely. “In effect this would remove a fault from humanity forever,” says The Times. John Harris, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester, says: “The human genome is not perfect. It’s ethically imperative to positively support this technology.”
- Those in favour of designer babies argue that these scientific advances can be regulated in order to avert potential doomsday scenarios. “I still think you can try to regulate the technology,” Arthur Caplan, founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University, told USA Today. “It would be nice if we had an international group; set out some rules. It would be great if the scientific community – with religious and ethics and legal leaders – would set up some rules of how to operate. It would be nice if journal editors would say, ‘We’re not publishing anything unless these rules are followed.’”
- In the US, a poll found that 83% of people thought genetic modification to make designer babies more clever would be “taking medical advances too far”, according to MIT Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, proponents of genetic engineering argue that higher IQ is exactly what we should be considering. Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher best known for his work on the risks of artificial intelligence, wrote in a 2013 paper that even a small number of “super-enhanced” individuals could “change the world through their creativity and discoveries, and through innovations that everyone else would use”.
- There is the possibility that people will use the technology of designer babies for “enhancements”, rather than fighting disease. “The more control people have over the ability to design their children, the bigger the moral questions that raises – up to and including, who decides what constitutes a genetic problem that needs to be ‘fixed’?” said American TV host John Oliver on his show.
- Another issue with designer babies is that of practicalities. Doctors say that just because we can change a gene does not mean we know what that change will do. “Most diseases are not caused by a single gene but many. Changing lots of genes could have lots of effects elsewhere,” reports The Times.
- Any ethical debate “will also naturally run against practicalities like funding”, says The Independent. Many patients are subject already to a postcode lottery in accessing fertility treatment based on their local NHS funding, and “gene editing could initially be out of reach for all but the richest”, adds the newspaper. Acknowledging this problem, panel chair Professor Yeung said that if funding inequalities “were to exacerbate social injustice, in our view that would not be an ethical approach”.