About a month ago we wrote a story about the Fertility Institutes, the first company to offer parents the choice of screening their embryos for eye color, hair color, and complexion. The announcement from the Fertility Institutes was an extremely controversial topic, drawing strong feelings from supporters and detractors across the nation. Now in an apparent bow to public pressure and outrage, as of March 2, 2009 the Fertility Institutes has retracted its pledge to offer these “designer babies”. Although The Fertility Institutes appears to have lost this particular battle, the war on the issue has only just begun. Companies like the Fertility Institutes, as well as aspiring parents across the world, will continue to test the waters in an inevitable march toward genetic selection and even modification.
The following statement was issued on The Fertility Institutes website on March 2, 2009:
In response to feedback received related to our plans to introduce preimplantation genetic prediction of eye pigmentation, an internal, self regulatory decision has been made to proceed no further with this project. Though well intended, we remain sensitive to public perception and feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer are far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved. For those patients with albinism or other ocular pigmentation disorders, we continue to offer preimplantation genetic diagnosis in general but will not be investigating the genetics of pigmentation of any body structures.
Many will promote the Fertility Institutes failure to roll out genetic choice for hair color and eye color as a triumph for morality and a mandate from society to end such trivial pursuits. But this sort of thinking is flawed and futile. Perhaps the brazen attitude and carelessness with which The Fertility Institutes tried to bring this product to the market was the source of its failure, or perhaps the idea was simply ahead of its time by a few years. Yet the idea itself has an inevitable trajectory.
We should point out that the Fertility Institutes was only offering to screen DNA of embryos for genetic traits. They were not offering to genetically modify the DNA. Modification, however, is certainly on the horizon.
Although for now we can debate whether or not it is useful or even morally acceptable to select for trivial genetic traits such as hair color, the truth is that the technology to enable all sorts of genetic choices, both life threatening and purely cosmetic, is rapidly approaching. The Fertility Institutes has proven that parents for whatever reason want to make these choices and are more than willing to pay exorbitant prices to have them. Therein lies the seeds of a future where genetic selection and modification for almost any conceivable trait will become the norm.
It is already well established within society that genetic selection and modification to mitigate disease and to choose a child’s gender is a choice that parents should be allowed to make. If we can allow parents to make these genetic choices, how can we stop them from wanting and then pursuing other choices beyond these?
It is a shame perhaps that so much focus has been given to genetic selection of eye color and hair color in the first place, taking focus away from the great triumph we have achieved in using genetic selection to save thousands of children from seriously debilitating and deadly diseases. It also distracts us from debating the selection and modification of more useful traits that may be on the horizon, like intelligence and physical strength and agility. It is easy to tell parents that they should not tamper with a child’s eye color, but not so easy to tell them they should not provide their child with normal or even superior intelligence.
Even as the debate will continue to rage on, the eventual outcome seems not only inevitable, but also fair: parents will be allowed to choose whatever traits they want for their child, whether it be eradication of disease, increased intelligence, or even eye color. As long as the choices parents are making pose no obvious harm to the child, such as intentionally giving the child a disease, parent choice shall reign supreme.
Purists will have the choice to create a child that its completely unmodified and unselected for any trait, subject to the genetic russian roulette that has been our heritage until now. Meanwhile, other parents will want to enhance and modify their child to no end. Parents might choose to give their children “useful” traits like extra hands, gills to breathe underwater, or super height or they might choose purely cosmetic traits such as blue skin or spots. Should there be regulation for safety and ethics? Absolutely! But the world will be a better and more interesting place if we leave most of the choice in the hands of the parents.