Posts Tagged ‘preimplantation genetic diagnosis’

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Designer babies are good, but don’t come with a satisfaction guarantee

Saturday, 11 April, 2009

There’s this story going around concerning designer babies, supposedly trying to show how horrible a future where babies can be designed can be. It goes something like this:

Mr. and Mrs. Jones want a baby. They visit a fertility clinic and announce: “We want a boy—blond hair and blue eyes, please. We want him to be at least six feet tall, good at sports and have great musical ability.”“No sweat,” the doctor says. Nine months later, baby Logan is born.But for Logan’s parents, things don’t work out quite the way they expected. Despite his outstanding physique, Logan has no interest in sports. He likes to write poetry instead. As for music—yes, he’s good at it, his genes have seen to that—but he’d much rather spend his time designing model airplanes.

Logan’s parents are furious. They paid good money for a son who would make them proud on the athletic field and in the concert hall! Plus—the final insult—Logan dyed his blonde hair purple.

There are a number of points to address here.

Most importantly, genetics can’t ensure anything, especially when it comes to personality. Personality, more than anything else, is the result of a complex interplay between genetics and environmental factors. It would be possible to use genetic modification increase the probability of athleticism and musicality in a child, but it can’t be guaranteed.

The story mentioned that Logan’s parents are furious, but it’s worth noting that they are unlikely to be furious at Logan – it’s not his fault – but are likely angry at the doctor for accepting their money and not delivering on his promise. A doctor will of course need to be sure to stress that he can’t ensure anything, because doctors who promise things they can’t deliver are risking lawsuits from frustrated parents. So that part of this story won’t happen, that’s for sure – no doctor will promise this, and only stupid parents would expect their doctor to do so.

What of the parental pressure? Well, parents like Mr. and Mrs. Smith already exist, putting pressure on their children to be top achievers at school, to do well at sports, and try to guide their children into what the parent dreams their child will be.  Designer babies won’t be adding anything new here, and may actually be able to help.

To demonstrate this, consider how the story could have been:

Mr. and Mrs. Jones want a baby. They have dreams of having a healthy baby girl, with soft brown hair and big dark eyes. They dream of her growing to be a tall and beautiful woman, going to the best college in the state, being outstandingly musical and perhaps becoming a successful lawyer or physician.But they don’t use any genetic interventions, because those are against the law in all nearby states and countries. They conceive naturally, and nine months later, a baby girl, named Lora is born.Her parents are ecstatic that without needing to choose their child’s gender, they were still gifted with a baby girl. But in other ways, Lora isn’t what her parents expected. She is short, and would much rather play sports, especially basketball, than go to school. Her parents try to encourage her to study, pushing her to try harder, but Lora has difficulty reading and paying attention in class. Lora loves music as much as her parents do, but she is almost tone deaf and she wasn’t selected for the school band.Lora’s parents eventually come to terms with the fact that Lora wasn’t born with the abilities they expected, and Lora accepts that her small stature will prevent her from fulfilling her dreams of being a star on the basketball court and her dyslexia will hold her back in college. Perhaps Lora will find a satisfying life despite this, but it’s likely she and her parents will spend the rest of their life in disappointment.

Amazingly, biotech could actually help here. Mr and Mrs Smith want a daughter who is tall, beautiful, musical and intelligent. Gene modification or selection could increase the chances that Mr and Mrs Smith have a daughter who is everything that her parents’ value. It’s still possible that their daughter won’t share the same interests as her parents. But if she does, she will avoid the same years of struggle and disappointment that Lora had coming to terms with her problems.

The very final point in the original story, where Logan dyes his hair purple, is a very poignant one. Gene interventions don’t actually intrude on the child’s freedom, as they are free to rebel. You can give a child a beautiful head of hair, but they will dye it and cut it a different way. You may give them the genetic basis of creativity in the hope they become a great musician, but they are free to use this creativity to write poetry and design model planes. And, it’s likely that the genetic technologies will exist to permit a child, once they reach the age of maturity, to undo the manipulations their parents had made.

All of us are born with genetic tendancies that shape who we are, and grow to have dreams and aspirations. In most of us, we struggle to find satisfication when we realise our abilities conflict with our desires – our own desires, and the dreams of our parents. The important part is that our parents still love their children, regardless.

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New Zealand not so good anymore

Monday, 23 March, 2009

It’s a shame too. The Bioethics Council of New Zealand (aka ‘Toi te Taiao’), the same council that last year published such sensible opinions on parents genetically selecting their children,  has apparently been disestablished. A press release states:

It is with regret that Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council announces it has been disestablished by the Government.

Such a stupid thing to happen to such a clearly wise group of people. I hope New Zealanders make a big fuss about this.

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Significant minority favour designer babies

Wednesday, 28 January, 2009

The results of a recent study into public opinion on reproductive genetics (reprogenetics) have been released. It’s promising, as the percentage of respondents who would consider using genetic testing to select for a child with increased athleticism or intelligence was in the double digits (10 and 12.6% respectively). In addition, the majority of respondents (52.2%) also said that there was no form of genetic testing that should be always off limits, meaning that genetic enhancement may be considered allowable if it was to be voted upon.

That said, the respondents were people who were visiting a genetic counsellor, and therefore the results may contain some bias towards acceptance of genetic testing or genetic enhancement.

For a longer and more in-depth analysis, read what George Dvorsky had to say on it.

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Baby born with less chance of getting cancer, and people are upset

Saturday, 10 January, 2009

In the United Kingdom, a child has been born without a mutated allele of the BRCA1 gene, a gene known to create a risk for breast and ovarian cancer if it is mutated. Yet, because this baby was chosen as an embryo on the basis that it did not have this mutation (and other embryos, with the mutation, were not implanted), people are throwing the E-word left and right. Well, mostly just known bio-conservative Josephine Quintivalle:

Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “This is nothing personal towards the girl, but I think we have gone too far. […] Underlying all this is eugenics.”

Whether PGD and selective implantation is eugenics depends on what is meant by this very loose term. If eugenics is to mean killing people because they are ‘unfit’ or controlling people’s reproductive lives, then this is surely not eugenics, as embryos are not yet people and this procedure was consented to by the parents. But, if eugenics is to mean attempting to improve on humans, then perhaps this is eugenics. The issue is, the E-word carries many implications of the former attrocities, and so I feel it is too misleading to be used here.

Mrs Quintavalle was then reported as saying the message was that

“you are better off dead, than being born with this gene”.

Of course, Mrs Quintivalle can now join other bio-conservatives, and Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon, as a member of the group of people who don’t realise that there is a difference between not existing and being dead. Although to be fair, these people do see the destruction of embryos as killing of people, so if they were right (but they are not) they might have a point. Although, such a point would best be expressed as ‘you are better off not being born at all, than being born with this gene’. But as embryos are not people, and can’t be called ‘you’ nor empathised with, there is no point.

This birth is a key one, as it represents the first use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to prevent the mere risk of a disease, rather than the certainty. This is seen as being on the road to designer babies, but fortunately when it comes to using biotechnology to prevent or cure disease, many people are accepting of the idea. Let’s just hope they remain accepting of enhancing the speed and reflexes of a child, such as to reduce their risk of being in a car accident or being hit by a bus.

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Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 16 April, 2008

I know I’m supposed to be giving you some Wisdom to counter last week’s Worry, but I’m afraid I need to point this particular quote out to you all. If I wasn’t so fond of the alliterative title, I would have called this ‘Wednesday’s Words of Utter Tripe’.

It comes from the UK, where if you’ve been following the biopolitical debates, the HFEA bill is causing controversy in the deaf community over a particular clause that rules it illegal to select a disabled embryo over a non-disabled embryo. So, this particular quote comes from Professor Peter Braude, of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where he is the director of the Assisted Conception Unit.

“I have serious concerns about deliberately selecting a embryo for deafness. This is the same as taking a normal child and deliberately making it deaf so that it can fit in with a community. I don’t see how that can be acceptable.” (source: Telegraph)

I really hope that it is obvious to you all that this is not the case. Nobody is modifying any children, nor are there any children in this case to modify. They are embryos, and they are not genetically modified – their genome is exactly what they had since conception. Embryo selection merely chooses which are implanted and which are not. They are choosing to have a deaf baby, not making a baby deaf.

Consider other examples. Choosing not to have children because you want to focus on your career is not the same thing as killing a child because you want more time for work. Choosing to have a child free from Down’s syndrome is not the same thing as curing a child from Down’s syndrome. Choosing to have a boy is not the same thing as performing a sex-change on a girl.

I would have thought a Professor would have the brains to realise this, but obviously I am wrong.