Designer Babies, Designer Morality?

I think everyone has seen enough pictures of Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and tentatively named baby “North” to know what designer clothes are. But garments are not the only things that come in “designer” varieties. That label can be applied to everything from furniture to jewelry, from accessories to … babies? That’s a term you may not have heard before: ‘designer baby.’

Simply put, the expression refers to a living human whose genetic makeup, either partially or completely, has been customized to contain certain characteristics and not others. It is a child whose genes have been altered or possibly invented to give it certain physical traits. This idea may reek of a vaguely eugenic, dystopian conception of reproduction, but it’s actually much closer to reality than it is to Orwellian fantasy. In fact, designer babies, in at least some sense of the term, already exist, and the advancement of genetic technologies has brought them closer and closer to everyday practice.

Enter the Fertility Institutes. For $18,000, the Institutes can guarantee certain traits for your baby. How? First, they create a series of embryos from a sperm and egg belonging to the couple wishing to conceive. Then they screen the embryos for certain genetic characteristics, from gender to serious debilitating genetic diseases. When they find an embryo that matches the traits the parents have requested, they implant it in the mother to eventually be birthed. The rest of the embryos are discarded.

Although the procedure is used only for sex selection and disease prevention at this point, the company claims that soon they will create embryos that have a greater chance of being endowed with particular eye colors, hair colors, and complexions. And while these techniques seem relatively benign, the world of designing embryos quickly gets much cloudier. In fact, scientists can and have created children with three genetic parents instead of two through the process of the mitochondrial transfer.

Even though the vast majority of genetic information is found in the nucleus of a cell, small bits of DNA are found in a separate cellular component called mitochondria. Mothers with mitochondrial DNA defects pass them on to their child 100 percent of the time as opposed to only having a certain probability of giving their children defects through nuclear DNA. Accordingly, a procedure was developed to take the nucleus from a mother’s egg, and thus the bulk of her DNA, and implant it in the surrogate egg that contains healthy mitochondria. The result is an embryo that contains genes from three different parents.

If this isn’t ethically muddled enough, things may become even more unclear in the future. It is conceivable that soon we will have the ability, just as with crops, to genetically modify embryos by literally writing genetic code and inserting it into embryonic DNA. Such embryos would have even more contributors to their genetic makeup―an entire lab full of them, in fact.

The implications of altering the genes of human embryos illustrate just how sharp the double-edged sword of creating designer babies truly is. On one hand, the positive effects of potential therapies are virtually limitless. Diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, depression, and autism all carry genetic predispositions, many of which have been identified. Even violent behavior has been associated with certain genes. These ailments, along with diseases that are completely caused by genes, like Down Syndrome, could be eliminated entirely. Furthermore, we could theoretically engineer biological defenses to communicable diseases like HIV. As genetic sequencing and gene therapy become faster and more inexpensive, such treatments loom larger and larger on the horizon.

As with most emerging technologies, on the other hand, there are significant negative consequences that must be wrestled with. The first is actually developing these technologies. Many scientists oppose even treading in such brackish water for the simple reason that they have no idea what they’re getting into. It’s still almost completely unknown how mitochondrial DNA interacts with nuclear DNA. For all we know, the babies created via mitochondrial transfer may have serious problems down the line.

Even more troubling, the process of understanding how to genetically modify foods in the past resulted in thousands of mistakes—mistakes that could be easily and ethically discarded. To think that we can cultivate similar techniques in humans without similar mistakes constitutes incredible hubris, and the best solution does not seem to be creating and discarding the errors.

Even if we are to imagine that the technology can be created without repercussions, its implementation still carries grave social and moral concerns. Just to choose the sex of a baby currently costs tens of thousands of dollars. How much will it cost to select for the complex gene sets that control intelligence, physical appearance, or emotional stability? If these therapies are even mildly expensive, the middle class and those in poverty most likely will not have access to them. Are we willing to further expand the already massive dearth of opportunities for those with low income? Such considerations don’t even touch on the precariousness involved in the regulation of reproductive rights.

If there is one thing scientific progress is poorly equipped to navigate, it is, unfortunately, morality. It seems that advancement occurs whether or not the moral implications are sufficiently understood. In the case of designing babies, the positives are limitless, but it appears that the negatives are, too. If carefully contemplated, gene therapies could offer humanity a range of incredible capabilities and eradicate a host of awful diseases. If approached wildly and wantonly, however, as is common with progress, we may be stepping into moral waters so murky that we’d be better off sticking to dry land.

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