‘Designer babies’ move closer to reality with patent

What if you could choose your next baby to have the “least expected life cost of health care”? And would you prefer that baby to be a “likely sprinter” or a “likely endurance athlete?” Do you want her to have blue, green or brown eyes?

Those are just some of the choices listed on a patent granted to 23andMe Inc., a company that provides DNA analysis. The patent, which was issued Sept. 24, covers a technology that would help a prospective parent choose traits in a baby by identifying those traits in the DNA of sperm and egg donors. Then the prospective parent could build a designer baby through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization or by hiring a surrogate mother.

Building to spec

If you think this build-a-baby idea sounds like something out of “Brave New World,” you are not alone, for ever since the patent was issued, a wide range of people have been sounding the ethics alarm over the idea of trying to order up a baby according to certain specifications. Many have suggested this idea falls into the category of eugenics — an effort to breed preferred types of people.

For example, in an Oct. 4 article in Huffington Post, Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, wrote: “High-tech genetically matchmaking suggests parents’ unwillingness to accept a significant departure from whatever a child’s endowment might occasion. The patented technology, by encouraging parents to choose this particular child for just the right characteristics, threatens to crowd out our acceptance of children, as they arrive to us, with our desires for what we hope them to be.”

The Center for Genetics and Society issued an Oct. 2 press release calling on 23andMe to abstain from offering the service and to use its patent to prevent others from doing so.

“It amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies,” Marcy Darnovsky, the center’s executive director, said in the center’s press release.

Furthermore, experts have pointed out that such technology has no guarantee for desired results — something 23andMe acknowledges — given the complex nature of genes and the role of environment in shaping an individual.

Current screenings

The 23andMe company began to retreat a week after the patent was issued, and on Oct. 1, the company posted on its blog a statement saying that when it applied for the patent five years ago, “there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics.” But since that time, the company’s strategic focus changed, and it does not plan to offer gamete donor selection.

Nevertheless, some experts predict 23andMe may not forgo for long the profit potential of its patent. Already thousands of people use egg and sperm donor profiles that detail the donors’ appearance, talents, I.Q. and ethnicity. A company called GenePeeks has a patent pending to build a “virtual” baby on computer by simulating the DNA combination of a woman with the DNA of prospective sperm donors to provide a customized list of donors.

Furthermore, fertility clinics regularly screen embryos before implantation for inherited disease as well as for desired gender, and then discard or freeze those that don’t meet parental specifications.

Contraceptive mentality

Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told Our Sunday Visitor this thrust to control reproduction reflects the culture’s contraceptive mentality.

Rather than accepting a child as a gift, some people try to control everything about a child rather than allowing the child’s innate abilities and talents to flourish, Smith said.

What if that child has limited abilities? Smith said deficits that may be considered huge negatives in life often turn out to be huge positives. For example, she said the people she knows who have a child with Down syndrome talk about that child as “gift, gift, gift.” This does not mean having a disabled child is easy, she said, but these children enrich the family and society in unimaginable ways.

“And what if you try to perfectly design a child, and that child doesn’t live up to the expectations?” she asked. “We’ve already seen with parents who have unrealistic expectations for their children, how damaging it is.”

Disposable culture

Pia de Solenni, an ethicist and cultural analyst, told OSV that this build-a-baby mentality is part of what Pope Francis called a “disposable culture.” She likened the process to trying to “fit a child into a box.”

When parents do this, she said, they miss the experience of encountering another person as a gift, and they set themselves up “for a world of heartache and disappointment,” for no person lives up to all the expectations of others.

Instead of focusing on designing a child to their own specifications, de Solenni said parents should be concerned about forming their children to be good and holy people.

“None of these things affect moral traits, and at the end of the day, that’s what we should be most concerned with,” de Solenni said. 

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.