Gene editing desingner babies: Is mankind playing god?

From selecting hair colour to athletic ability, one will soon be able to design characteristics and looks of babies. But would you?It is not simply aesthetics we consider for our future child. There are those who can only imagine having a boy; those who hope their children inherit their partner’s aptitude for maths; or pray it arrives without their raging temper. These hopes and worries seem trivial compared to the physical health of your child, but it’s impossible to silence the inner voice wanting your child to be, well, ‘perfect’.

New scanning technology has been accused of fuelling the fears and demands of expectant mothers. Often described as ‘baby bonding’ scans, 4D enhanced images are sold by screening companies as a medium to connect with your unborn child before birth. In reality, these images send many panicking mothers to pregnancy forums, seeking reassurance that noses always look bigger on screen.

Ethical Concern

A technique known as  Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) leaves nothing to chance. Women undergo IVF, eggs are fertilised. Then the embryos are screened to see which genes they carry, and only those that conform to the parents’ desire need be implanted. This, according to experts is the future of making the perfect baby. “Scientifically, a woman could walk into my clinic today and I could give her a baby of the gender she desires, that I could guarantee didn’t have the genes for a host of diseases, and in certain groups, with the eye colour the parents wanted,” says Dr Jeffrey Steinberg from California’s Fertility Institutes. “The problem is ethically I can’t do all those things.”

Many doctors are opposed to PGD for “lifestyle” rather than medical reasons, but the market is robust. Princeton University biologist Lee Silver, whose book Remaking Eden addresses precisely these sorts of ethical issues, believes that within a few years, sex selection will cease to be much of an issue. He cites the example of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), the technique used to make “test-tube” babies. “When the world first learned about IVF two decades ago,” he says. “It was horrifying to most people, and most said that they wouldn’t use it even if they were infertile. But growing demand makes it socially acceptable.”

Nevertheless, we’re not quite at the stage where would-be mothers sit in front of a catalogue and design their own baby via a list of physical attributes. Aside from gender, the only traits that can now be identified at the earliest stages of development are about a dozen of the most serious genetic diseases. Gene therapy in embryos is at least a few years away. “I think the next step will be that the majority of parents will go through some kind of genetic screening so they know what health risks they might pass on to their child – and then be given the option to avoid it using techniques like PGD,” says leading geneticist David Goldstein. He believes that by 2020 this could also include screening for genes that merely increase the risk of diseases such as heart disease or diabetes, not just genes that cause a disease.

FINDING A BALANCE

Of course your choices are completely restricted to the genes you hold – genetically engineering children to possess traits their parents don’t have is still science fiction, as the risks of manipulating genes are nowhere near adequately understood. With skill traits, the closest is likely to be sports ability as the genes that influence it have been positively identified. Other more complex traits will come, but not for a while. “The problem with things like intelligence and creativity is that we’re not sure what emphasising one gene will do to other elements of the personality,” says Salvescu. “Increasing the creative potential of a child may make them more prone to mental health issues.” He does however say that once the technology is available to screen for things like intelligence, it’s our ‘moral obligation’ to use it as it is likely to benefit society as a whole. But we must not forget one other element in this type of selection – your child .