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Designer Babies: Searching for the Perfect Child

Bioethics Observatory of Valencia considers the technological issues with this trend

Designer babies. In our opinion these technologies encourage children to be considered as a product that can be selected or rejected. We therefore consider that a moratorium should be proposed.

A recently published article in Fertility and Sterility (103; 342-343, 2015) reflects on the production of designer babies and the medical, social and ethical problems (especially the latter) that this practice could entail. (See more HERE about ethical point of view of the concept “designer-babies”)

The article begins by referring to Aldous Huxley’s book, “Brave New World”, in which the author speculates about how a world would be in which children were created by technological rather than natural means.

There have undoubtedly been many technical developments since Huxley’s time, so what he described could in actual fact fall short of the biotechnological reality promoted by transhumanism, posthumanism and the hypothetical production of cyborgs. In relation to this, Lee Silver of Princeton University speculates about what the future could be for a society in which children are not conceived naturally, which, in his opinion, could be beneficial, since he thinks that natural conception is too risky. In this regard, Silver has patented technological methods that use the parents’ DNA to predict disease risk in their children. The ultimate goal of these techniques would be to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to reduce, or even eliminate, the genetic risks that, in his view, implicitly accompany natural reproduction.

According to Melo-Martin and Rosenwaks of the Division of Medical Ethics Unit at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, these techniques undoubtedly have problems that they summarize in four points:

  1. Knowledge of our genome is still very limited. Moreover, many diseases are the result of interactions between our genes and the environment, as well as epigenetic factors. At present, the technology that Silver proposes can only detect the risk of monogenic diseases (the result of a single defective gene), and not complex genetic alterations or alterations due to the interaction between genome and environment. i.e. it is a very limited technology.
  2. Given the very extensive information that these techniques can provide (still not well determined either), it seems highly improbable that parents using them would have the knowledge necessary to know how they could be used to improve or select the “quality” of their children.
  3. We are all carriers of genetic variants, so sometimes it is not easy to make a clear distinction between health, disease risk and disease. Therefore, it also seems unlikely that parents would have enough knowledge to choose the embryos with or without different types of genetic risks. Thus, not only would it pose a problem for parents to choose the best embryos, but also the responsibility of not being able to determine exactly which would be the best.

Finally, these technologies may also encourage children to be considered as a product that can be selected or rejected, thus reducing the risk of having “imperfect children”. They could even go beyond the limits related with suffering diseases, or having a risk of suffering certain medical problem in adulthood, to being able to choose children with certain characteristics, such as the colour of their eyes, skin, hair, their intelligence, or cognitive abilities, to mention a few. This choice would surely be made according to the personal preferences of the parents, and not always taking into account the good of the children, which of course would lead to unquestionable ethical problems.

“It seems irresponsible to think, given our present incomplete knowledge of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that techniques can be used to program designer children using assisted reproduction”

Consequently, it seems irresponsible to think, given our present incomplete knowledge of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms, that techniques can be used to program designer children using assisted reproduction. Even if our knowledge were greater, their use would entail major ethical problems, which would have to be resolved before putting them into practice. Furthermore, this threat would have to be extended to the possible risk of developing unproven technology, which could have a high destructive capacity, and could put an end to the human and social values that we now wish to conserve, i.e. we believe that the new technology applicable to what could be posthumanism and the creation of cyborgs raises multiple ethical issues, which would have to be considered in depth. This reminds us of the moratorium proposed by eminent researchers in Asilomar (California, USA) when gene therapy began, until there was better understanding of what the techniques could imply.

We therefore consider that a similar moratorium should be proposed at present for all those techniques aimed at “improving” the human species by genetic and/or epigenetic modifications.

Justo Aznar


Bioethics Observatory of the Catholic Univeristy of Valencia (Spain)

This article has been reprinted from Bioethics News.

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