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Designer Babies

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

By Maliha Akter

A designer baby is an infant genetically engineered in vitro for selected traits, which can range from reduced disease-risk to gender selection. Before the introduction of genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization (IVF), designer babies were once considered a hypothetical concept. But with technological advancement of recent years, designer babies became a reality. As a result, designer babies have become an important topic in bioethical debates, and soon the term “designer baby” was coined as an official dictionary term. Designer babies represent a field within embryology that has become somewhat feasible, but nonetheless there are ethical concerns about whether or not it will be necessary to implement limitations.

The future of engineering a child with specific traits is not improbable. IVF has become an very common procedure to aid infertile couples conceive children, and the practice of IVF benefits the ability to pre-select embryos before implantation. For example, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) allows embryos to be screened for serious genetic diseases (e.g. cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia) before implanting them in the mother. Through PGD, physicians can select embryos that are not predisposed to certain genetic conditions. PGD is the likely method for selecting traits, since scientists have not created a reliable means of in vivo embryo gene selection.

An early case of gender selection took place in 1996 when Monique and Scott Collins saw doctors at the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, for in vitro fertilization. The couple intended to conceive a girl. This was one of the first highly publicized instances of PGD in which the selection of the embryo was not performed to address a specific medical condition, but to fulfill the parents’ desire of a “balanced family”. The Collins’ decision to have a “designer baby” by choosing the sex of their child became well-known when they were featured in Time Magazine’s 1999 article "Designer Babies". While the Collins’ case only involved choice of gender, it raised the issues of selection for phenotypic other traits not related to the health of the child.

Genes influence health and disease, as well as human traits and behavior. Researchers are just beginning to use genetic technology to unravel the genomic contributions to these different phenotypes, and as they do so, they are also discovering a variety of other potential applications for this technology. For instance, ongoing advances make it increasingly likely that scientists will someday be able to genetically engineer humans to possess certain desired traits. Of course, the possibility of human genetic engineering raises numerous ethical and legal questions. Although such questions rarely have clear and definite answers, the expertise and research of bioethicists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists can inform us about how different individuals, cultures, and religions view the ethical boundaries for the uses of genomics. Moreover, such insights can assist in the development of guidelines and policies.

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