I’ve been polishing a manuscript about my specialty: how we communicate about science, and took a look at how we talk about designer babies. I recently learned that some parents do indeed have an opportunity to select some embryos over others.
Somehow I missed the email on this discussion.
Just by happenstance I caught the movie, My Sister’s Keeper (2009), based on the book by Jodi Picoult that everyone seems to have read except me. But it never occurred to me that the book was more science than science fiction.
Turns out that parents, just like the ones in the book, do indeed have the ability to work with a clinic in creating an embryo in vitro—outside the womb.
That part I knew.
The first “test tube” baby (petri dish is more apt), Louise Joy Brown, turns 33 years old on July 25. The parents’ egg and sperm were joined in a petri dish because the mum had trouble with her fallopian tubes.
Since 1978 some 4 million babies have been produced using this method, according to Atlantic magazine.
What I didn’t know is that several eggs are fertilized and then specialists can determine which embryo is the best fit for your purpose: one that carries a life-threatening gene, for example, can be tossed aside. But the embryo that carries life-saving genes for a sick sister or brother can be implanted into the mother’s womb.
In the film, the petri-dish baby supplies cells, blood and marrow for her sick sister.
Parents who can afford in vitro fertilization (the cost is about $10,000 and up, for an implantation, according to one newspaper), have the opportunity in some clinics to choose from an array of genetic markers that scientists can now detect.
The intent is to screen for genes that are linked to breast cancer or Down syndrome. But guess what? Scientists can also determine eye color, height and gender. And you can potentially choose from among a list of traits you find desirable.
What started out as an attempt to help parents conceive healthy babies has given way to genetic selection. Obviously the ethical questions abound.
But what I find intriguing as I read through the discourse on in vitro selection is that some parents have set aside their ethical convictions in favor of in vitro fertilization. The Vatican issued a document in 2008 that discarding embryos violates human life, for example.
We seem to be pretty generous when it comes to passing judgment on other folks, and I can think of a billion reasons to engage in ethical discussions over in vitro selection.
But when it comes to our own personal decisions, we often think of our priorities as apart from everyone else’s priorities. Reporters have interviewed parents with deep religious convictions who have elected for in vitro fertilization despite their dogma.
And I’m sure these are tough decisions. But the issue also reveals our own human tendency to set aside our ethics when it comes to issues that engage us, personally.