Tuesday 8 October 2013

If you could design your own child, what characteristics would you choose?

If you could design your own child, what characteristics would you choose?

by Nirmalya Dutta

Imagine a world where you could choose what your baby would look like. Would you want him to have green eyes like Hrithik or a musculature like John Abraham? How about the ability to sprint like Usain Bolt or box like Floyd Mayweather? Also how about making sure that he/she will have a longer lifespan, not suffer from cancer and will have no congenital defects?

Designers babies may sound like something out of a utopian novel like Brave New World or sci-fi flick Gattaca but it could soon be our reality. About 10 days ago when the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted a patent to the firm 23andMe for a process called gamete (egg or sperm) donor selection. This essentially means that this would allow parents to choose genetic traits like eye colour in children born from donor eggs or sperm.

The reality sounds scarily similar to  Gattaca where the entire society was driven by eugenics (the practice of improving genetic quality in human beings). Children were given the best hereditary characteristics and the entire society was divided between valids (genetically-modified people) and the invalids (people born naturally). The valids always had better options – professionally or otherwise – and the invalids with their susceptibility to disease are relegated to menial jobs.

Understandably, medical ethicists are alarmed beyond measure. A comment by them in the journal Genetics in Medicine reads, 'What 23andMe is claiming is a method by which prospective donors of ova and/or sperm may be selected so as to increase the likelihood of producing a human baby with characteristics desired by the prospective parents.' (Assisted Reproductive Technology – the ugly truth)

Shopping for genetic traits

The parents could actually pick on computer the desirable characteristics they wanted in their baby from the genomic data of the egg or sperm provider. Characteristics on the shopping list include height, eye colour, muscle development, personality traits and genetic susceptibility to certain types of cancer and other diseases. A figure attached to the patent application would allow prospective parents to indicate whether 'I prefer a child with' : 'longest expected life span' , 'least expected life cost of health care,' or 'least expected cumulative duration of hospitalisation,' they said.

There are also more interesting options like '0% likely endurance athlete and '100% likely sprinter' though of course the company has stated it can't guarantee the outcome and it would merely boost the chances of a child having those perceived desirable traits. Commentators are particularly aghast at parents having the ability to choose what characteristics they want that have nothing to do with the child's health. . 'At no stage during the examination of the patent application did the patent office examine or question whether techniques for facilitating the 'design' of future human babies were appropriate subject matter for a patent,' they wrote. The USPTO said it did not comment on issued patents.

23andMe said the patent, applied for more than five years ago, was for a tool dubbed Family Traits Inheritance Calculator that offered 'an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you' — from eye colour to whether the child will be able to perceive bitter taste or be lactose intolerant.

'At the time 23andMe filed the patent, there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics, so language specific to the fertility treatment process was included ,' it said. 'The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so.'

Pros of Family Traits Inheritance Calculator

We would all love to live in a world where our children (even those born via assisted reproduction) resemble us. 23andMe allows people who can't conceive to do that. Also there's absolutely no argument against getting rid of congenital diseases in children or even giving them longer lifespans. It's simply not fair that certain children have some ailments that others don't.

Cons of the Family Traits Inheritance Calculator

What has medical ethicists particularly riled is this seems almost like playing god. You can get rid of undesirable characteristics and only promote the desirable ones. This will essentially mean that some children will have more enhanced characteristics than others which would give them a better chance at life. Of course, we do have a society which is unfair. A child born in a rich, well-off family will simply have more chances of living a higher quality of life than a child born in a poorer family. But assuming this procedure is expensive, we could have a society where the rich can buy the desirable characteristics in their children. Essentially it's like gambling with a loaded dice, getting rid of the genetic lottery all together. No matter how hard or long I practice, I will never run like Usain Bolt. I just don't have the genetic make-up for it, but a parent being able to buy that characteristic for his child is a scary thought indeed.

The final word

In Gattaca, the lead character Vincent is an invalid. He has a life expectancy of 30 years, myopia, congenital heart defect and has a higher chance of developing mental disorders. On the other hand, his brother who has been genetically chosen has all desirable characteristics but Vincent manages to beat him in a swimming race through sheer will power and determination. This lets him believe that he can do anything a valid person can and he lives his dream of going into space. There's no gene for will power, drive and determination (not one we're aware of anyway) and you just can't buy that for your child.

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