Long before Watson and Crick famously uncovered the structure of DNA in 1953, people envisioned with both horror and hope a day when babies could be custom designed -- free of inherited disease, yet equipped with superior genes for good looks, intelligence, athleticism, and more.  Now the beginnings of the day of designer babies have finally come.

The Fertility Institutes recently stunned the fertility community by being the first company to boldly offer couples the opportunity to screen their embryos not only for diseases and gender, but also for completely benign characteristics such as eye color, hair color, and complexion.  The Fertility Institutes proudly claims this is just the tip of the iceberg, and plans to offer almost any conceivable customization as science makes them available.  Even as couples from across the globe are flocking in droves to pay the company their life's savings for a custom baby, opponents are vilifying the company for shattering moral and ethical boundaries.  Like it or not, the era of designer babies is officially here and there is no going back.

60 Minutes ran an excellent story Focused on The Fertility Institutes:

For decades now a technology called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, has enabled In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) clinics to screen embryos for more than 100 potentially debilitating and often deadly diseases before the embryo is implanted into the mother.  A medical revolution has thus unfolded, enabling literally tens of thousands of couples and their babies to sidestep some of the world's most terrifying diseases.

Take the case of Cindy and John Whitley.  Their first child died at the age of 9 months from a deadly genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.  Genetic analysis uncovered that the Whitley's statistically had a 1 in 4 chance of creating a child with spinal muscular atrophy each time they conceived.  Unwilling to risk having another child with the deadly disorder, the Whitley's used PGD to conceive three children, all healthy.

Yet PGD allows scientists to screen embryos for much more than just genetic diseases, and therein lies the promise - and the peril - of designer babies.

Gender was the first major genetic trait beyond genetic disease to be widely manipulated through PGD.  The Fertility Institutes is a leader in the field, claiming nearly 100% success in providing couples with a baby of a predetermined gender.  Completely healthy and fertile couples from all over the world are coming to The Fertility Institutes everyday to confront the risk, the expense, and the discomfort of  conceiving their baby in a test tube, all for the ability to choose the sex of their baby.

Gender selection is a big business.  Dr. Steinberg, Director at The Fertility Institutes, claims that they are performing on the order of 10 gender selection fertilizations every week, each for a fee of $18,400.  Although In Vitro Fertilizations were originally designed to help parents that were unable to conceive children naturally, Steinberg says that a staggering 70% of their clients have absolutely no difficulty conceiving children, coming to the Institute purely for opportunity to choose the sex of their baby.

Now, in the latest twist in the march towards designer babies, The Fertility Institutes says they will soon be able to offer couples the ability to screen their embryos for eye color, hair color, and complexion.  The Institute cannot change the DNA of the donating couple -- if neither the mother nor the father has genes for green eyes, for example, then the Institute cannot give them a baby with green eyes.  Yet within the constraints inherent in the DNA of the donating couple, The Fertility Institute is willing to screen embryos for these traits.  The Fertility Institute wants to offer several other customizations, and many more are sure to be released in the coming years as the science behind screening for them is developed.

In many countries around the world PGD is heavily regulated and designer babies are strictly out of the question.  Yet in a strange paradox, even as the United States is one of the world's most regulated nations in several areas of medical research and development, PGD is completely legal and unregulated in the United States.  Hence, even as the United States is hindered by regulation in areas such as stem cell research, the country seems poised to be a world leader in the designer baby revolution.

At the moment, The Fertility Institutes carries the mantle as the company at the forefront of this revolution, and as such they are a lightning rod for the praise and adoration, but also the bitter and severe anger, of those on both sides of this great moral debate.

The genie is officially out of the bottle, in fact it probably has been for a long time.  There is no stopping the designer baby revolution.  Even as some countries try to clamp down on it, others will allow it.  Progress, if we call it that, will continue unabated.  A similar phenomenon has unfolded with embryonic stem cell research  in recent years.  Even as the Bush administration almost completely strangled US investment and research in this promising field, other countries invested heavily and advances continued.

A new generation of genetically enhanced designer babies is inevitable in the coming decades.  Yet for those of us that are merely "normal", do not despair.  Even as we are outmatched by the next generation genetically, a host of new technologies from chip implants to gene therapy may allow us to keep up, allowing us to enhance ourselves in equally transformative ways.  The future will indeed be interesting.

Want to know more? The Wall Street Journal wrote a great story on this topic: A Baby, Please. Blond, Freckles -- Hold the Colic


Image: Unsplash

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