- Scientists and policy makers debate gene editing at a summit in Washington
- It raises questions of about technology that could create “designer babies”
“You can tell he takes his physique quite seriously… his eyes… seemed bottomless.”
These are not descriptions from romance novels, nor are they OKCupid profiles. These are actual descriptions you’ll find when sperm-shopping online.
With a few mouse clicks and a credit card, you can order the beginnings of a specific type of baby. And as genetic technology improves, there will be many more ways for us to choose the kind of child we have. The question is, will we?
Thought leaders, scientists and policy makers from both countries are holding a historic summit in Washington
this week to debate the question of “when, if ever, we will want to use gene editing to change human inheritance,” as David Baltimore of Caltech, the summit chairman, put it in his opening remarks. This is the latest conversation among experts to try to determine how much technology is too much.
For generations, reproductive medical technology has advanced, sometimes faster than popular opinion. But historically, opinions shift to welcome the advances. Now, as millions of parents struggle with fertility challenges and turn to technology, the broader question is, will they use science to create not merely healthier babies, but designer babies who have extraordinary traits?
A Victorian phenomenon
This possibility may sound like the plot of “Gattaca
,” a futuristic movie where all babies are designed for perfection, but science has been intervening in pregnancy since the Victorian era. The first doctor-designed baby that we know of was born in 1884
A Quaker couple with fertility problems didn’t know they’d change reproductive history when they sought their doctor’s
help. Using the
Victorian technology of the day
, the Philadelphia doctor put the woman under anesthesia and inseminated her with sperm donated from a medical student. Using Victorian reasoning, the doctor didn’t tell the woman how she got pregnant.
The baby was healthy, but she never knew the child wasn’t her husband’s. Eventually the doctor confessed to her husband and published the case 25 years later. The procedure itself (not the fact that he didn’t tell the woman or get her consent) made the doctor a pariah. Other scientists who pioneered reproductive technology lost jobs for “messing with nature.”
Nontraditional pregnancies became such a debate in the 1940s that Pope Pius XII denied millions of Catholics the option, condemning it for “tak(ing) the Lord’s work into their own hands.”
How IVF evolved
Eventually popular opinion accepted this technology as a medically ethical practice. A record number
of women have used in vitro fertilization to get pregnant
. At least 55 million people can thank IVF for their existence.
IVF tech has also evolved, although it’s still intrusive, time-consuming and expensive. Typically, primary-care physicians don’t perform the procedure. Instead, specialized clinics
freeze, store and test the sperm for diseases.
Using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, doctors need only an eight-cell embryo to test for about 100 genetic diseases.
“Genetic screening like this has really taken off and helps improve the odds to eliminate a disease that is life threatening and it can improve the effectiveness of the IVF treatment,” said Dr. Jessica Spencer, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Emory University School of Medicine’
s department of gynecology and obstetrics.
Doctors also can tell the embryo’s sex at this early stage. Sex detection is banned in many countries to prevent parents from terminating a pregnancy because they prefer one sex over the other. U.S. law does not restrict sex detection, so American clinics that offer the option are popular with clients from countries that don’t allow it. (Spencer’s reproductive center at Emory doesn’t offer the service).