Designer babies are babies, whose genetic makeup has been artificially screened and chosen by scientists, via genetic engineering. This concept has raised numerous ethical issues. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of designer babies.
Did You Know?
The term ‘designer baby’ was actually coined by journalists and not scientists.
The term ‘designer baby’ made its entry into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004, where it is defined as “a baby whose genetic makeup has been artificially selected by genetic engineering, combined with in vitro fertilization to ensure the presence or absence of particular genes or characteristics.”
What is a Designer Baby?
Advances in genetics have given birth to this concept of ‘designer baby’, wherein, parents and doctors are able to genetically screen embryos for any genetic disorders. In vitro fertilization (IVF) technique involves the fertilization of the egg by the sperm in test tubes, outside the mother’s body. This allows doctors to screen the embryos. Genetic screening has made it possible to eliminate genes associated with several genetic defects and terminal illnesses.
A revolutionary technique called ‘preimplantation process’, when used in conjunction with tissue typing, is used to screen embryos for any genetic disease and only the disease-free embryos are implanted into the mother’s womb. However, the technique is not limited to screening for genetic and hereditary disorders, but is also used for cosmetic reasons.
Dr. Jeff Steinberg, Director of the Los Angeles Fertility Institute, who played a major role in the world’s first test tube baby in 1978, states that by using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), parents can choose the gender, eye, skin, and hair color of the baby. Various other physical traits such as intelligence, beauty, height, stopping a propensity towards obesity, freedom from mental illnesses, athletic ability, etc. can be also determined. He went on to say that this service is available solely to couples seeking IVF.
Designer babies have been debated for over a decade. While some people believe designer babies can revolutionize life beyond our imagination, others believe such a revolutionizing technique can cause harm to mankind in the future. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of designer babies.
Pros of Designer Babies
Adam Nash was the world’s first known designer baby, born by the revolutionary ‘preimplantation process’ in the year 2000. Scientists genetically selected his embryo, so that he would possess the right cells to save his dying sister’s life. His sister suffered from Fanconi’s anemia (blood disorder), and mostly the chances of Adam getting that disorder was also very high. Out of a total of 30 embryos, an embryo free from Fanconi’s anemia was chosen. When Adam was born, the blood cells from his umbilical cord, were transplanted into his sister’s body, which saved her life. In no way was Adam subjected to any kind of medical procedures to save his sister’s life, thus, Adam was in no way affected.
Same was the case with Charlie Whitaker, who suffered from Diamond-Blackfan Anemia. His parents wanted to have a designer baby to save Charlie’s life. Since they were denied the right in UK, they went to US, to have their baby. In 2003, Charlie’s baby brother was born and the stem cells from his umbilical cord were used to treat Charlie.
However, many pro-life groups are against the concept of savior children. Let’s have a look at what the parents of savior children have to say in their defense.
Pro-life Group’s Argument
The savior child is wanted to save the other sibling, and may feel unloved for being exploited.
Jason and Lesley Gregory decided to have a designer baby, to save the life of their daughter Harriet, who is born with a rare brain condition. However, the birth of baby Michael to save Harriet, was criticized by may pro-life groups that said children need to be born for their own worth, not to save siblings. To this Lesley Gregory, mother of Harriet and Michael said, “We love Michael as much as we do our other children. When he’s older we’ll tell him what his purpose was, that he’s extra-special for the gift he gave. If something happened to Harriet, hopefully Michael’s arrival would cushion the blow. Until then we’ll do everything in our power to save her. Wouldn’t any parent do the same?”
On the other hand, a not so fortunate Shahana Hashmi, was denied the right to have a designer baby in the UK (on ethical grounds), to save her four-year old son who was suffering from a rare and terminal blood disorder. Later, when the right was restored, her body has passed the viable reproductive stage, and she was unable to bring a savior child for her ailing son. To this she said, ”Our intention was never to create a designer child. It was to create a much loved child who could help his brother.”
Prevent Genetic Disorders
Genetic screening can reduce the baby’s chances of being born with several serious diseases like Down syndrome, spinal muscular atrophy, cystic fibrosis, familial hypercholesterolemia, rare blood disorders such as Diamond-Blackfan anemia, etc. Families with inherited medical conditions like diabetes, obesity, hypertension, etc. or diseases like parkinson’s disease, thalassemia, cancer, arthritis, hypothyroidism, Alzheimer’s disease, etc. may want to go in for designer babies to prevent the next generation from inheriting genes with these diseases.
Disease-bearing genes can be screened for and only those without the disease can be implanted into the uterus. Thus, ensuring a healthy next generation. With the help of this new technology, parents can be assured their children won’t have to struggle with the same illness they or their family members are going through.
Cons of a Designer Baby
Abandoning or Aborting the Designer Baby, After Retrieval of Stem Cells
Pro-life groups fear designer babies will spearhead inhuman actions. According to their fears, couples may go in for designer babies just for the stem cells, and then give up the baby for adoption. Couples may even go in for surrogacy and then even decide to abort the fetus at 7 months, after obtaining the necessary stem cells. There are scores of reports of cases in Ukraine, wherein, surrogate mothers were paid to abort the child at 7 months, and stem cells were used in beauty treatments. This is nothing but brutal murder for something as ridiculous as physical beauty.
Stem cell research has given birth to some beasts, who will go to any extent to make money. Some doctors in Ukraine tell pregnant women to abort their babies, saying the fetus has some birth defects, even when the fetus is perfectly healthy. They lie, just to get hold of the stem cells. Aborted babies are the best source of organs and stem cells. Abortion clinics in Ukraine ship bodies of aborted babies to cities like Moscow, where the stem cells are used for cosmetic treatments. Thus, while on one hand, stem cell research is being used to create life that can save another life, it is also taking life away from millions. The demand for stem cells and fetal organs is leading to several atrocities, which is too painful to even think about.
Destruction of Unwanted Embryos
As in the case of Molly Nash, 12 embryos were created in the lab, and only after a lot of screening was Adam born. This means, 11 other embryos were destroyed and only one was chosen to be born. This seems unethical because, the others were not chosen because of their genetic build-up. The very fact that all embryos have one thing in common: life, it is unethical to destroy them or in other words ‘murder’ them. Are embryos considered disposable?
Savior Child Undergoes Medical Procedures
Savior children are selected base on their genetic makeup. Their tissues are a match to those of their siblings. If only the tissues from the cord blood is required to save the sibling, it is fine, however, sometimes savior children are also conceived for organ donation. When bone transplants are the only way to save the sibling, the savior child has to undergo invasive treatment, which is not fair.
Baby Max Matthew was born as a savior child (2010), to save his sister Megan, who was suffering from a rare inherited blood disorder, Fanconi anemia. However, because the tissues obtained from Max’s cord blood wasn’t sufficient, an invasive procedure was carried out to recover some bone marrow stem cells. Again the question arises, can the child give his/her consent for this medical procedure? Is it not unfair to the child?
The movie, ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, is one which portrays a couple, who decide to have a designer baby, to save their older daughter who was suffering from leukemia. The movie goes on to show how the savior child is required to undergo various invasive procedures to help her sibling, and also asked to donate her kidney to save her life. If this happens in real life, it is simply not fair to the savior child. Emotional blackmail is not right and even if the child chooses to say no, imagine the emotional trauma he or she has to go through. Bringing a child into this world and putting such a heavy burden on him or her is not right.
Designer Babies with Enhanced Looks and Abilities
The adoption of genetic engineering for genetic enhancements has spearheaded a lot of controversies. People have begun asking the question, “Is it ethical to create designer babies with enhanced physical ability and appearance?” The National Director of Christian Voice, Stephen Green said, “The objection to the idea of designer babies is that it divorces procreation from the act of sexual congress, and there’s a real sense in which it is playing God.” Critics point out that the level of biodiversity in the human race will plummet, which can result in long-term disaster.
Eugenics is defined as “the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits.” Adolf Hitler was on a quest to create a race of Aryan Blond, blue-eyed and tall people. Creating designer babies is believed to be on the same lines. The question arises, which skin color and physical features are to be chosen? The advent of designer babies will affect biodiversity. Parents passionate about sports, would have the athletic ability engineered into the child, however, the child may not want the same. This reduces the child’s freedom to choose.
Genetic engineering, if accepted, will have a negative impact on the society. It will result in increase of unreasonable fear or hatred towards foreigners or anyone who appears different. People with genetic defects will be socially rejected. They will be called ‘gene poor’ and will be separated from the society as well.
Today, people who have genetic defects are already treated differently and cast out from society in several parts across the world. Designer babies concept, will lead to discrimination on the basis of certain qualities or traits. Kids of rich families will receive genetic enhancement, leading to genetic aristocracy. This gives them an unfair advantage over the other children. People unable to afford genetic engineering will be looked down upon, thereby, creating a greater rift in society. Moreover, most parts of the world are still male dominated, and sex or gender determination of the baby, can lead to gender discrimination across the globe.
Then again, using the preimplantation process to screen embryos for any genetic disease and eliminate it is understandable, however, how does one explain deliberate crippling of children. Is it ethical to allow parents to choose disabilities for their children? A deaf lesbian couple, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough, from the US, used this method of genetic engineering to create their deaf designer baby. Their old deaf friend was their sperm donor, who came from a family with five generations of deafness. However, how ethical was this? The deaf lesbian couple, felt that deafness is not a disability, instead a cultural identity. But was deliberately choosing deafness for their child, the right thing to do? Weren’t they playing God?
Genetic engineering can be likened to a knife, it can be used to destroy or bring life. What you use it for makes all the difference! While on one end, it is nothing but brutally wrong to use designer baby stem cells for cosmetic purposes, while on the other end using this technology to save life cannot be ignored. Stepping into the shoes of a sick child’s parent, wouldn’t you jump into having a savior child, without even the bat of the eye? Or would you find it too unethical to save your sick child, by the means of a designer baby?