Designer Babies: The Good and the Bad

Our Argument: Genetic Screening for a Purpose

     Imagine this: your second child, a beautiful baby girl, is diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia [3] at just two years of age. The prognosis is bleak, and your world is torn apart. She needs a bone marrow transplant, and you and your husband are both tested, as is your son, her older brother. None of you are matches. So you have two choices – let your precious daughter die, or make a match. Thus is the predicament of the mother in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, a book that brings up many questions about the ethics of genetic engineering and embryo selection.

What does genetic screening entail?

     Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, as embryo screening is also known, involves in vitro fertilization and testing of the embryonic cells for genetic variation indicating a propensity for a certain disease or condition. This practice is frowned upon by pro-life advocates, as it involves the discarding of embryos possessing the target allele, thus interfering in nature’s course and preventing the embryos from developing, being born, and living. It is also currently very impractical due to its expense and its unavailability – only rich families can afford this procedure, which may be repeated multiple times until viable embryos are found.

How would genetic screening benefit society?

     The potential uses of this method of disease “insurance” could serve to eradicate hereditary diseases from the human race.  From a medical standpoint, embryo selection can be used to determine the propensity of an embryo to develop into a child suffering from a specific illness. Mandatory genetic screening of embryos of people known to carry the alleles for fatal hereditary diseases, when instated, has huge implications. It is advisable to use genetic screening to only implant healthy embryos into the population, eliminating much unnecessary healthcare costs and removing these genetic risks from the population.

Where do you draw the line to avoid "designer babies" ?

     It is important to note that the only embryos being discarded are those that would suffer from fatal hereditary diseases – fatal, meaning that the individual’s life span would be shortened due to this illness, and hereditary, indicating an ability to possibly pass the allele to offspring and perpetuate the disease. There is a line between appropriate use of this technique and situations which could allow for or encourage misuse of embryo screening. Thus, diseases that are genetic but are not hereditary (such as Down's Syndrome) should be excluded from this policy because they cannot be eradicated from society by embryo selection. Also, diseases that are debilitating but not fatal should not be selected against because there is not a definite, objective way to determine quality of life.

    The subject of genetic engineering should never be taken lightly. Much of science’s frontiers are rife with inherent ethical and social implications that must be considered when making an argument either for or against embryo selection.  When determining whether or not an embryo should be implanted, there are multiple factors to be considered. However, these aspects of the decision are not a defined right and wrong; there is a lot of gray area in decisions that call on ethics and morals, which vary greatly in any given population. The most controversial facets of genetic screening necessitate evaluation of quality of life, a completely subjective and insubstantial concept. Any ethical dilemmas facing embryo selection do not undermine its validity as a healthcare tool.

    Embryo selection is only advisable when employed to ensure that individuals are not born with an illness that would shorten their life expectancy. Hereditary diseases such as Tay-sachs, Huntington's, cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, and dozens more burden society as people born with these diseases receive expensive medical care and support in order to survive. By implementing the practice of genetic screening worldwide, those diseases could eventually be eradicated. It is true, though, that using genetic screening as a means to pre-select unborn human beings is not only considered unethical and immoral by certain groups of people but would also lead to an essentially immobile societal class structure. Therefore, a carefully controlled practice from which all of society could benefit is key.

Other notes:

    We would like to recognize that these practices are exceedingly expensive and that government subsidation would likely be necessary to fully implement preimplantation genetic diagnosis. We also acknowledge that currently only first-world countries would be able to afford such medical legislation, potentially causing a further rift between the "westernized" countries and the rest of the world. We do NOT condone ethno-centric practices, and our ideal genetic screening mandates would apply to every nation.

   Discussion of the practice of genetic screening brings up many questions that yet remain unanswered, many with myriad ethical and social implications that are beyond the scope of this argument. We, the creators of this website, encourage extensive consideration of embryo selection, and we advise educating yourself on this topic and other controversial issues. For your edification and to aid in further personal research on this topic, here is a non-inclusive list of important questions to consider when arguing for or against embryo selection:

-- What is the role of government in healthcare? Is it appropriate for legislators to mandate any medical practice for the good of society?
-- How do you define quality of life, and how does this belief factor into your stance on embryo selection and designer babies?