A couple of months ago I was interviewed by a few undergraduate students doing a class project on Reproductive Genetics. As anticipated, their questions centered on new technologies, such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and then quickly veered toward the topic of creating ‘designer babies.’ After completing the interview, I felt like I had taken the wind out of their sails. For all of their enthusiasm and controversial questioning, I had simply and consistently reiterated two points:
- We don’t have the scientific understanding and capacity to pick and choose for cosmetic traits.*
- In my honest (and perhaps wishful) opinion, I hope we never gain the ability to do so.
I was reminded of that interview when The Globe and Mail ran a front-page story at the beginning of January: ‘Unnatural selection: Is evolving reproductive technology ushering in a new age of eugenics?‘ It is a piece that we have all read a dozen times before, with quotes from GATTACA to boot. As I started in on the article though, I had a brief moment of self-doubt. More specifically, I wondered if my own ‘wishful thinking’ (point number 2, above) might cloud my judgement and ability to see what is actually being offered in the real world. What if someone is offering testing in the realm of ‘designer babies’ that I am not aware of?
In the end, contrary to what the title suggests, the article mostly focused on Mendelian diseases and the well-known ethical ‘slippery slope’ discussion. It was also chock full of quotes from medical professionals who bluntly state that we don’t have the capability to select for cosmetic traits, and will likely never have the ability to accurately do so.
There were still things in the article that surprised me, though. For one, the openness of PGD gender selection testing being routinely offered by a US-based center for non-medical indications. I also learned about a fertility center called Natera, that has considered using PGD to test for common complex disease, such as psoriasis. (In looking into the company further I was happy to see that they have a number of genetic counselors on staff.) Most notably, I was surprised by quotes from a number of fertility specialists who say they routinely get questions about whether they can select for specific cosmetic traits.
Dr. Steinberg’s work in Tinsel Town means that he is well acquainted with such desires. “We get requests for all kinds of things. We had a pop star inquiring if her vocal abilities could be passed on to her children,” and elite athletes asking, “Do you think you could make it a tall boy?”
The thorn in a genetic counselor’s side
As genetic counselors, we will spend the rest of our professional lives explaining that our role does not involve the creation of ‘designer babies.’ This is a professional hazard that we have no choice but to accept. As frustrating as this perpetual conversation may be, at least right now we have the science to fall back on: We can‘t do that. We don‘t do that.
But, what if? What if the science gets there, and the myth of the ‘designer baby’ becomes a reality?
I’m pretty confident that we will not see a day when parents routinely use reproductive technologies to select for cosmetic traits, or even against multifactorial diseases. The complexity of the genome is too great, and the gene-gene, gene-environment, epigenetic interactions too numerous and minute to control. But, maybe I’m just blinded by my personal opinions on the matter.
I’d love to hear what others think. Cast your vote and/or share your thoughts below.