designer babies
Image: Elnaz6 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Ethical warning bells went off in April when Chinese researchers reported they had experimented with 85 defective human embryos to try to alter genes in every cell without otherwise damaging the DNA.

They failed. In most cases, the genes were not altered at all, and in the few cases where the scientists managed to alter the genes, there were problems.

Even though the researchers had no plans to produce a live baby, their work once again raised the issue of how soon science will be able to engineer designer babies and, just as importantly, whether doing so is ethical.

“Science is moving at such a rapid pace that society can’t put off much longer deciding what it thinks about the concept,” says Peter Schattner, a scientist and author of “Sex, Love and DNA: What Molecular Biology Teaches Us About Being Human.”

“Abortion has long been a challenging and controversial issue, but with our increased ability to use fetal DNA to glimpse into the potential child’s future, the moral issues have multiplied.”

As science progresses, parents may be able to choose a child based not just on the sex but on such criteria as a child’s likelihood of excelling in sports or mathematics.

Schattner says that’s when the “should they” questions will become ever more pressing, and several scenarios could be raised that society must face.

DNA testing is less expensive than it once was. As a result, more genetic conditions are being screened in newborn babies. In 1995, five conditions were generally included in those screens. A decade later, many states were testing for 24 or more. Before long, a whole-genome DNA screening will be less expensive than individual genetic tests. But what should be done with that data? Should parents know every potential health condition a child could face throughout his or her entire life?

“You also need to think about the wishes of the children,” Schattner says. “As they grow into adulthood, are they going to want to know everything about their genetic makeup?”

Prenatal DNA data already lets prospective parents know whether a child will be born with Down Syndrome or Tay-Sachs disease. Some parents choose abortions in those cases. But as science’s understanding of DNA improves, parents may soon be able to learn more than just whether a future child will face a devastating disease or condition. Medical professionals will be able to tell them whether their yet-to-be-born child will be affected by less severe disabilities, such as a hearing impairment or moderate intellectual disability. How will parents and society use that information?

An ultrasound examination can usually reveal the sex of a child by week 12 or 13 of the pregnancy. DNA-based sex determination will soon be able to reveal that information as early as week seven. But that’s not the end of the story for any parents who might want to select their child’s sex. By combining prenatal genetic testing with in-vitro fertilization, it will soon be possible to select fetuses without requiring an abortion.

“The temptation to play God and choose a child on the basis of a variety of nonmedical considerations may become too strong for some parents,” Schattner says. “The potential consequences are disturbing.”

Schattner says society as a whole needs to understand the implications, because science won’t be able to provide all the answers.

“Science can only address questions of what is,” Schattner says. “In contrast, questions about what should or shouldn’t be are moral or ethical questions, and science can never answer them. But by understanding more fully the scientific questions about how the world is, we are in a better position to make societal and personal decisions that are in line with the moral and ethical beliefs we hold.”

Peter Schattner is a scientist, educator and writer with 30 years of research experience in molecular biology, genetics, biomedical instrumentation, and physics. He is a recipient of the Technical Innovation Award from the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine. Schattner received his doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg and has held research and teaching positions at the University of California, California State University, and Stanford Research Institute. He is the author of numerous scientific articles and reviews as well as the textbook “Genomes, Browsers and Databases.” His latest book, “Sex, Love and DNA: What Molecular Biology Teaches Us About Being Human” is his first book for non-scientists.

13 COMMENTS

    • It needs to be done, but for ethical reasons it needs to be free. If it’s not we’ll be unprepared for the future. If it’s not free then your not helping humanity evolve you’re helping it destroy itself.

      Common sense

      • I’m not sure what you meed by free. Bernie Sanders free as in taxpayer dollars should pay for gene editing or free as in unrestricted?

  1. Considering you are picking up monotheism in an attempt to stop the progress of science, yet again, it is a falsehood to expect morals out of religion.
    Our current state of capitalism is already in the way of restoring limbs for veterans of war.

    • “It is a falsehood to expect morals out of religion.”
      Morals are born out of religion and philosophy, not science or any other discipline. Philosophy attempts to define a morality independent of religion, but often comes up with some scary rationalities.
      Consider: The Christian philosopher St. Thomas of Aquinas has as one of his moral guidelines “Evil acts committed for good motives are not good acts.” However, a more purely reason-guided philosophy like Utilitarianism dismisses this, and instead instructs that “as long as sufficient good results are accomplished, an act that seems evil may be considered good.”

      I don’t know about you, but the Utilitarian idea seems to me a bit scarier than the religious guy’s standard.

  2. Bullcrap it needs to be, it’s playing God and you know it. Just because something cn be done doesn’t mean it should. THE Romans tried this concept, the Nazis did and it backfired. It will never work and if even if it were to work somewhat, ultimately it will fail So sure, go ahead, piss of God and pay the price for it. Stupidity truly runs rampant.

    • social experiments and others of the type do not work for the sole reason God himself observed that human have evil inclinations , whatever they do it will end up bad. Hitler”s enhanced race ,Mao ,Godless communism all dead and very destructive , most modern world is insolvent as population growth relying on outside help ,the women of poverty brings enough offspring’s through great hardship and somehow they make it ,modern women has all the choices ,planned parenting ,emancipation ,freedom and all ..,all that provides a unsustainable reproduction rate , God provided plenty of suffering at the garden of Eden event for man and women and that seems the only sustainable way for humans to survive , unless the latest developments will prove otherwise

  3. The author has no clue what they are talking about. Gene editing might prevent systic fibrosis or tae sachs. It cannot make a smarter kid.

    • That statement is rather misinformed.
      We see mental capacity being bred in animals already. Just look at pets, which are, relatively speaking, some of the newest animals on the planet. Within the space of a very few generations, wild animals akin to wolves and predatory cats became domesticated, and have been bred for a variety of factors–including intelligence.

      I will agree that no amount of genetic conditioning will allow a newborn to quote Shakespeare on the day of his birth. However, that doesn’t mean that genetics don’t play a role in that newborn’s capacity to learn. To state otherwise is to ignore years of scientific evidence–and the genetic disorders, such as downs syndrome, that handicap that capacity.

      Sounds like you need to do some more research and learn what it is you are talking about.

  4. There was another who wanted to “play God,” and he became God’s “Devil.” Humanity has ever suffered this attempt (which failed), and in the area of morality, only foolish men will try to re-run that scenario. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” All those who attempt to reproduce the Devil’s agenda are doomed to the Devil’s fate. The question is not: “Does a human have the freedom to play God?” Sure, he is free to attempt it. The question is: “Should he?” And the wise answer is: “No!”

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