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Designer Babies? Not So Fast

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To some, the very idea of “designer babies” is disgusting. If you believe the core of parenting is acceptance, tinkering with a fetus, embryo or egg to produce traits you desire is a failure of love.

Others see mainly chances to make better lives. Why shouldn’t we start at the beginning, preventing disease and giving our children any step up we can?

You can't begin to think about these ethical questions without understanding how your history and emotions play in. Did you always feel your mother or father was trying to change you, make you better? Or maybe you are grateful for their active help with health problems and want to be just as active for your child.

New parents will have more decisions to make. At the moment, no one authority is responsible for addressing the ethical questions raised by new medical technologies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only investigates the safety and efficacy of any technology. American medical associations have begun debating the issues, but they disagree, for instance on whether parents using fertility techniques should have the right to choose their future baby’s gender.

Most say that baby-designing, if it comes, will creep up on us by degrees, and seem less strange as we go along. Rejecting potential babies—arguably a first step towards designing babies we want—is already common. Across much of the globe, parents screen fetuses and abort the girls. Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom ban sex-selection. The United States does not regulate efforts to choose a baby’s gender. However, a new law in Indiana prohibits abortions sought because of “race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability.” Doctors who perform them can be held liable in a lawsuit and sanctioned by Indiana’s medical boards.

What if you’re choosing which embryo you plant? Parents who use in vitro fertilization (IVF) can screen embryos for diseases--a process known as “pre-implantation genetic diagnosis”—and learn their gender.

Also in the wings are ways to manipulate eggs to avoid certain diseases. Imagine that you knew your egg contained flaws in the mitochondria, the energy-producers of a cell. Flaws can kill babies and children, or cause blindness or heart failure over time—although you may have no symptoms. Now imagine that you could bear a child who had your DNA but healthy mitochondria from a donor egg.

Healthy infant macaque monkeys have been born from cells altered along these lines, including frozen eggs. The same team of scientists demonstrated their technique with human eggs, removing a nucleus from an egg with healthy mitochondria and replacing it with the intended mother’s nucleus, which contains her DNA. They then successfully fertilized the egg. A trial implanting such an egg in a woman hasn’t yet been approved.

A new technology called CRISPR has sparked a firestorm over the ethics of human gene editing. A kind of cellular scalper, CRISPR can cut out the gene mutations leading to HIV and sickle cell anemia. Last spring, researchers in China used CRISPR to replace a gene in a single-cell embryo.

Yet there’s little chance that we’ll be able to use something like CRISPR to promote attractive traits anytime soon.

Why? Complex characteristics like modesty or intelligence aren’t likely to originate in one spot, and we don’t know where to cut, even in theory.

Even if we could pull this off, Bonnie Steinbock, a philosopher at the University at Albany, State University of New York, thinks the ethical questions have been overblown. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the attempt to make our children smarter or kinder," she told the website Live Science. "If we did think that was wrong, we should give up parenting, and put them out on the street."

But gene-altering will continue to generate controversy, mainly negative. A good chunk of the public remains suspicious of science, especially in relation to kids. Witness the “anti-vax” movement. Few parents now admit they want to genetically alter embryos. As the eminent psychologist Stephen Pinker put it the forum, “Can Genius Be Genetically Engineered?,” "Parents won't even feed their kids genetically modified applesauce."

You decide.

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.