Ethical Dilemmas and Designer Babies

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.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, health, risk, science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ethical Dilemmas and Designer Babies

  1. It’s interesting to see this point of view. I can’t say fore sure if I agree or not, but it is something I will think about now.


  2. kirstin says:

    Humankind: The Ultimate Design
    As technology advances many improvements have been made towards improving the way we diagnosis, treat, and prevent diseases. More recently, the area of stem-cell research and the Human Genome Project have opened the door to new possibilities of how to further this progress. (Begley) As deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA is decoded, researchers are learning more and more about what chromosomes lead to certain traits humans express. By understanding what individual chromosomes control, scientists could theoretically keep certain diseases or deformities from developing in an embryo by eliminating that allele and replacing it with another. Within the next few years the possibility of using these technologies will become reality as knowledge advances. (Begley) However, in revealing the DNA code for disease and “handicapping” genes, scientists have also located alleles for other effects like hair color, nose shape, and body type. Being able to manage these features and in essence create “designer babies,” parents could not only have power over their developing embryo’s potential diseases and deformities, but also over their child’s appearance. While the ability to understand how DNA works and create a healthier life for mankind is important, I want to argue the designing humans in the womb is not only danger, it is detrimental to society, and encourages behavior that it actually unthreads the very bond that we as the human race share.
    As a competitive, survival of the fittest society, it is easy to see why many support the idea of preventing diseases in the womb. It is only natural that we want to be healthy and enjoy life to its fullest, with a fair of chance at what life has to offer us. However, what is the definition of “full?” Not experiencing any kind of handicap? By eliminating disease in the womb we may backhandedly say to those whom are disabled by birth or from life-changing events, that they are not good enough. By emphasizing the fact that these genes need to be changed or replaced, reveals that many feel those whom have “differences,” are something we would not what to be or experience. On the contrary, most parents of children with special needs will tell you they feel rewarded to have that child and how their life is complete because of them. Similarly, many children with special needs that grow to be adults say they wouldn’t change a thing about themselves, even if they had a chance. Altering the genes in the womb, is to tell these individuals they are what is not wanted, and that they are what they are is basically what someone having a child does not want, and hopes to change.
    Furthermore, allowing a parent to modify their child’s physical appearance is solidifying the idea that physical appearance is an extremely important part of who we are in society. We live in a world where everything is customized. Most people love to customize their belongings to fit their preferences, especially in the U. S. where appearance is major business. Society has developed an idea of what is attractive in a person’s physical features, and often times these people are put on a pedestal, so to speak. A parent may want to give their child all the physical features deemed attractive in this society, but that does not ensure successfulness, much less happiness. Physical attraction is only part of who a person is, and in a way may be a disadvantage to the person whom possesses these traits. They could be overlooked for their true talents, and recognized only for their look, which is temporary as we age. The same can be stated of a parent whom chooses to give their child wisdom, and the ability to learn and retain at an incredible rate. This does not mean the child will use this knowledge for good, or that they will be happy with their abilities. Many criminals and psychopaths are extremely smart and witty, but they use they abilities to hurt others. On the other hand, some extremely smart people have a hard time relating to the world around them, particularly in social situations. When a child today displays a talent, it is considered a gift and is treasured and appreciated. (Steinback) This treasured and appreciated feeling is one that can’t be bought or planned for.
    Given any gene, a person is shaped by their environment as well. It is the classic nature versus nurture debate. Even if a parent gave their child every “great” allele, avoiding any “bad” traits, their environment has an impact on who they will grow up to be. Take a child who is coded with great physical abilities such as a strong heart, muscles, and lungs. If that child sits around, smokes a pack a day, and eats double cheeseburgers twice a day for his lifetime, his coded traits can be considered a loss. Or what about the “coded” child who gets into an accident, and becomes mentally disabled, or loses a limb. Life experiences shape who we are and life itself is nothing we can code for.
    Finally, what does changing our children’s genetics to fit what we perceive as “better” conditions say about ourselves and society as a whole. Does it say that we are so unhappy with who we are, that we want to keep our children from experiencing our emotional and physical hurts and pains? Is society mean and discriminate to the point of wanting to eliminate the chance of being the one who is cast out for good? Instead of focusing on changing the way we are “designed,” society should be changing the way it thinks about life, love, and its ability to accept and support each other instead of trying to delete imperfects and their bad design. Humans are not products. There are no versions or model types that become outdated or obsolete. We each have strengths and weaknesses, talents and abilities. Together we have built pyramids, created vaccines, and explored the moon. How do you code for that?

    Begley, Sharon. “Newsweek.” Designer Babies (1998): 61-62.
    Steinback, Bonnie. “The Art of Medicine. Designer Babies: Choosing Our Children’s Genes.” The Lancet (2008): 1294-1295.


  3. Joya says:

    who are we to fondle with nature? nature is nature. let it be. if it is not meant to be, then maybe consider adopting?


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