Designer babies are becoming a reality

A rather disturbing article popped up at the Wall Street Journal this week (subscription required) having to do with the subject of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and how rapid advancement in this technology are now doing far more than simply allowing childless couples to conceive. A process which was once more of a shot in the dark attempt to fertilize a woman’s egg and implant it in her uterus, hoping for the best, has now morphed into a high-end marketplace for screening unborn children for any number of factors. And they’re not all related to future propensities for various birth defects or diseases. Now parents have the option of shopping around among their zygotes for traits as cosmetic as the color of their future child’s eyes.

Many prospective parents already use DNA testing to check for potential genetic anomalies that could lead to serious medical conditions. But as technology advances, they may also learn about characteristics that have less bearing on a future child’s health, like eye color.

In the area of reproductive medicine, parents wield great discretion in making decisions about their future children. But the notion that parents might someday select embryos based on what some deem as aesthetic preferences—a future child who is a certain height or good at sports or looks a certain way—raises challenging ethical questions. Perhaps, some ethicists argue, DNA testing will create a society that further values certain types of children more than others.

Many in vitro fertilization clinics that once offered genetic testing of embryos to prevent sex-linked medical disorders now also allow prospective parents to select the gender of the embryo because of a personal preference.

The article includes quotes from couples who clearly see nothing wrong with ordering their baby’s features à la carte as if they’re picking out new decorations for the patio. But is this really a good thing?

There’s been an ethical debate going on for quite a while now over this question. At the most fundamental level, pro-life groups have raised questions over a process where couples can intentionally generate dozens of embryos just so they can pick the “best” ones with the rest doomed to be disposed of as medical waste.

But even if you don’t consider the fertilized egg to be an unborn baby, further ethical questions await. I’m sure many of us could understand the desire to select a child who won’t be born with serious birth defects or a tendency toward fatal diseases. But should we really be able to pick the sex of the child in advance? Ethicists worry that widescale gender selection via IVF could lead to, “societal imbalances or contribute to sexism and discrimination.” A random, natural system produces a roughly equal number of boys and girls. But if too many people begin intentionally selecting boys and flushing all of the girls it will lead to problems such as we’re seeing in China and India.

And what about the really superfluous questions such as the ones in the WSJ article? Should we be allowing parents to only select a child with blue eyes or blond or red hair? Shall we eliminate all the short boys in favor of those who will grow to be tall? Keeping in mind that IVF can be a prohibitively expensive process, particularly if you’re not doing it for a medically required condition of infertility and your insurance won’t cover it, what comes next? The wealthiest among us wind up being able to produce a generation of superbabies with inherent advantages over everyone else.

IVF can be a true blessing for couples who are otherwise infertile. But it’s also one more example of allowing the technological genie out of the bottle. And once that happens, the genie rarely goes back in.