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‘Designer babies’ is a term that was coined by journalists, not doctors, and is an uncomplimentary one to question the ethics and implications of ‘messing about with nature’.
In recent times, biotechnologists have made considerable progress in understanding the human genome. This is the human genetic blueprint and mapping it out gives people a better understanding of themselves. Everything we are is a result of the genes we have; once the scientists know exactly which gene does what and where exactly they are located, it can become possible by manipulating the gene sequence to introduce a specific set of desired characteristics and create a ‘made-for-order’ or ‘designer’ human being.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the term ‘Designer Babies’ as “a baby whose genetic makeup has been artificially selected by genetic engineering combined with ‘in vitro fertilization’ to ensure the presence or absence of particular genes or characteristics”.
Advanced Reproductive Technologies
Scientists still have some way to go, both with scientific research and legal permissions, to create a completely genetic-selected designer baby, but advanced reproductive technologies are quite the norm nowadays.
Currently, only the following two advanced reproductive technologies are legally allowed.
- In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) – Eggs are taken from the uterus and fertilized with sperm in test-tubes in a laboratory and then the resulting embryo is implanted back into the uterus.
- Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) – When the embryo is at the eight-cell stage, a few cells are extracted and tested for signs of specific genetic disorders. Only a healthy embryo is chosen and implanted in the uterus. Most people who go for IVF treatment now also use PGD to screen the embryos.
Advanced reproductive technologies are used for the following reasons.
- To help infertile couples have children.
- To screen embryos for genetic disorders and select healthy ones. This is mainly done by couples with a history of a particular genetic disorder.
- To determine the sex of the baby. This again is done to moot out genetic disorders. Some disorders like hemophilia and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy are found only in males and so couples with a history of these disorders can choose to have a female child and thus have a healthy baby. Sex determination is illegal in many countries, except for the mentioned medically valid reasons; you cannot select the sex of your child just to ‘balance out’ your family.
In Germline Therapy, faulty DNA in an egg, sperm, or fertilized embryo is replaced with healthy DNA. This technology has been tried out with some success on animal embryos, but so far it is illegal to try it out on humans for the following reasons.
- Just because it was successful with animals does not mean it will be successful on human beings.
- Nobody knows what the long-term results could be, like personality disorders, physical disabilities, mental disabilities, illness, etc.
Body Cell Gene Therapy
This therapy is legal and is carried out on grown-up children and adults. Here, the faulty genes are modified to cure disorders like cystic fibrosis.
Some issues regarding advanced reproductive technologies are as follows.
- Sex determination has turned into a technique for screening and getting rid of the girl child in countries like China and India.
- Checking for genetic disorders is fine, but now people are inquiring about checking for ‘problems’ like shyness, baldness, homosexuality, etc.
- People want babies with socially ‘desirable’ traits like a good height, specific eye and hair color, strong personality, high intelligence, and so on. Nothing wrong with being socially desirable, but there is something rather inhuman about going to such lengths to achieve such perfection.
- On the other hand, there is the case of the American deaf, lesbian couple who specifically screened and chose embryos with a deafness disability. This seems particularly criminal – if parents intentionally deafened an infant, they would find themselves behind bars.
- Then there is the Nash family, who in 2000, had a baby boy who had been pre-screened to have the exact tissue match as his older and very-ill sister. Cells from his placenta were transplanted into her to cure her rare genetic disorder and now both children are healthy. This is one positive outcome of the advanced reproductive technologies.
- One rather peculiar outcome is the rhesus monkey, Andi (‘Inserted DNA’ spelled backwards). He was created from an egg that was injected with a green fluorescent protein jellyfish gene and then fertilized with monkey sperm. The scientists thought the jellyfish gene would make Andi glow in the dark. He didn’t glow, but no doubt there will be more experimentation and newer techniques developed in the future.