Further small steps toward designer babies

A personal-genomics company in California has been awarded a broad U.S. patent for a technique that could be used in a fertility clinic to create babies with selected traits, as the frontiers of genetic enhancement continue to advance.

The patented process from 23andMe, whose main business is collecting DNA from customers and analyzing it to provide information about health and ancestry, could be employed to match the genetic profile of a would-be parent to that of donor sperm or eggs. In theory, this could lead to the advent of “designer babies,” a controversial idea where genes would be selected to boost the chances of a child having certain physical attributes, such as a particular eye or hair color.

The technique potentially could also be used to create healthier babies, by screening out donors with genes that are predisposed to disease, either on their own, or in combination with the recipient’s genes.

The awarding of the patent “is a massive addition to what is currently being done” in fertility clinics, said Sigrid Sterckx of the Bioethics Institute Ghent in Belgium, who co-wrote a commentary on the 23andMe patent in the journal Genetics in Medicine on Thursday. “It indicates a different attitude, not just about disease-related traits, but nondisease traits.” 23andMe, based in Mountain View, Calif., says that while its new patent encompasses trait selection in babies, through a tool called the Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, it has no plans to apply it to that end.

As I understand the article, this works only when there is a sperm or egg donor, although a potential marrying couple could use it ex ante (“come on Biff, let’s just try it, I’m just curious.  I’ll always love you.”)  My view has long been that most people, if they have the chance, are willing to embrace and also use eugenics, albeit with some reframing and rebranding.  Eugenics was a very popular idea with Progressives earlier in the twentieth century, and also with economists (in particular, pdf), and ultimately the Nazi connection will be seen as a bump in the road.  Competition with the Chinese will help push Americans toward this ideological shift.  I am more skeptical myself, as I see greater value in the genetic outliers and I fear their disappearance or diminution.  I also am relatively skeptical about the quality of the processes — legal and otherwise — which are likely to govern such experiments.  In any case, you can think of this as the next step after “early intervention.”  Why don’t we call it “very early intervention”?

The story is here, and if you need to get through the gate, enter “Gautam Naik”, the author of the article, into news.google.com.


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