Designer babies: Gattaca is coming

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/03/03/earlyshow/health/main4840346.shtml?tag=topHome;topStories

There is a doctor who is promoting the idea of selecting traits for your baby.

“I would predict that by next year, we will have determined sex with 100 percent certainty on a baby, and we will have determined eye color with about an 80 percent accuracy rate,” said fertility specialist Dr. Jeff Steinberg, director of Fertility Institute.

"A recent U.S. survey suggests most people support the notion of building a better baby when it comes to eliminating serious diseases. But Dr. Steinberg says using technology for cosmetic reasons shouldn’t scare people away. "

Of course this brings up so many ethical issues:

If you ordered a brown eyed baby and get a green-eyed one would you feel cheated? Would you sue the doctor?

When the rich start using this technology to order smarter and prettier babies, wouldn’t this lead to a greater gap between rich and poor? And the gap would be harder to overcome since it’s not just a matter of home environment anymore, it’s genetic superiority.

Does this lead to unfair expectations on the child? If the parents chose this child for its musical talents, and the child doesn’t like to play the piano, wouldn’t the parents feel that they didn’t get what they paid for?
This technology is coming fast, and soon we’re gong to have to deal with all of these implications and more.

All well and good, I say. I never really saw anything wrong with the baby making situation in Gattaca. True, some of the effects of the process were sad for those whose parents couldn’t/wouldn’t take it, but eventually those issues will go away as the process reaches ever higher numbers of people.

It will be a painful transition, for some more than others, but ultimately it will be very worthwhile for humanity.

I worry about what would happen to the Earth if most cancers were done away with. I wouldn’t mind choosing the sex of my child (we’re having a boy any day now, so I want a girl next), but I cannot imagine caring about eye color, hair color, etc. I have one blue-eyed allele and my wife has two, so we have a 50/50 chance at blue or brown eyes, and I’m fine with that.

I’m assuming the only way these “selections” would be made possible is through in-vitro. Harvest eggs, create some embryos, determine characteristics of the embryos, make your selection.
Your choices would be limited to whatever characteristics these embyos had. They can’t create a blue-eyed blond male unless you’ve made one. And even if you found the embryo with all the perfect characterisics there’s no guarantee it will stick when implanted.
Would rich people really pay to do this invasive, expensive, painfull, time consuming process just to have that opportunity? I don’t know.

I concurr with **CutterJohn **in not understanding what was so wrong about the baby making in Gattaca, so, some babies are not genetically engineered (in the movie it was by choice IIRC), and they can not compete with the genetically engineered ones, whats the difference with people being educated in better universities, receiving better food as childs, etc?, if anything the fault was with the parents for not choosing to have their babies geneengineered.
If it was a matter of money, then my early examples about education and food apply.

It may perhaps be true that they can select so as to create babies with a certain hair color or eye color. Selecting for intelligence, on the other hand, is generations away, and may never happen at all. As covered in a Scientific American article last fall, there was a recent study following the progress of 7,000 children and comparing it to their genes. They found only six genes with any effect on intelligence, and the total effect from all six accounted for less than one percent of variation in intelligence. Hence the assumption that we can make future generations smarter by meddling with their genes is probably wishful thinking.

But here’s something else to consider. False belief in such a thing could easily lead to lazy parenting. If parents get a child which they think is engineered for automatic genius, they might think that it’s unnecessary to read to the child every night, check the child’s homework, take the child to museums, and so forth. Hence the plan could backfire and produce a dumber child instead.

Why? The people who will be doing this don’t tend to have a lot of kids. Especially since each designer baby they create is probably going to cost some non-trivial amount of money and (at least as I understand the technology is now) discomfort for the mother above and beyond the normal discomforts of pregnancy. Increasing the number of children that survive to adulthood (as eliminating cancer would) tends to drive the birth rate down, not up.

And selecting for something even more specific, like musical talent, is probably even farther off than that. I doubt you could select for something like interest in music, since that’s affected so much by environment.

Yes, reducing misery and painful deaths would suck ass. I’m not sure how we’d ever cope with it.

I’m trying not to be too sarcastic, but I’m glad you’re able to enjoy a potentially meaningless application of this techology while “worrying” about applications that might actually help somebody. Medical technology and other factors have extended our lifespans significantly and the world hasn’t ended; it wouldn’t end if we extended them further.

You don’t know that. Most of the environmental problems we’re facing are ultimately due to overpopulation, and they’re just getting worse. Imagine a few billion more people eating food, driving cars, using plastic. You can be as dismissive as you want but there are great minds - far more studied than you and I - on both sides of the issue.

I know you have a conviction that genes have little to no effect on the mind, but that simply can’t be true when it comes to intelligence, or intelligence wouldn’t be a trait associated with humans.

But eliminating genetic tendencies towards cancer would have little effect on that problem. Even completely eliminating cancer wouldn’t increase lifespan much; it would just mean people die of something else, a few years later at most on average. A worthy goal in itself, considering that cancer is an especially nasty way to die.

Curing cancer would not increase the population by billions, as Der Trihs notes. The nightmarish scenario you predict would only happen if we did something really awful like create a genetic resistance to malaria (without causing sickle cell anemia) or water-borne infections. That’d be terrible.

That one can be answered easily enough. I would not sue, because Dr. Steinberg would make me sign a release of liability before I ordered my baby.

However, I think this question leads to a much larger and more troubling issue. Most people were educated based on the old-fashioned model of genetics and heredity: one gene produces one trait. In recent years, this has shifted to a different understanding of a much more complex relationship between genes and physical traits. A gene may play a role in many traits, and many genes may be necessary to produce a single trait. Given this fact, it’s easy to conceive that meddling with one gene could produce unforeseen effects in other areas. Imagine that Dr. Steinberg puts a gene for height into thousand of babies. Years later, someone discovers that the gene also leads greater risk for heart attacks, but by then thousands of people have already been born with it. It’s too late to make backtrack.

Why do you think this is going to be different from things like childhood vaccines? Those haven’t driven up the population. In fact, areas where the population is growing rapidly today tend to be areas where lots of children die of disease, including the diseases we vaccinate against in the developed world.

Intelligence could be genetic, but governed by a lot of different genes instead of just by one or two genes. That would make it hard to manipulate artificially.

I don’t even think it would happen then. The people who are dying of those diseases today are not the ones who are going to be having designer babies. Even if they were, when most societies get to the point where most children are likely to survive to adulthood, birth rates go down.

“Hard” isn’t “impossible”.

You’d probably end up with a larger overall population, but yes, it wouldn’t lead to a huge explosion.

Nightmarish?

This is not really an example of “designer babies”. This is genetic analysis of embryos and rejection of some embryos based on whatever criteria the parents think important.

So you can’t choose to have a blond-haired blue-eyed athletic genius musical extroverted boy unless one of the embryos created via in vitro fertilization turns out to have those characteristics. This is the equivalent of looking at a dozen or so potential children that you might have had through normal reproduction, and selecting one or two that seem good to you. Since most embryos are either boys or girls, it is trivial to select for sex. But you can’t select for blond hair unless both the sperm donor and the egg donor have the genes for blond hair. And so on.

The main use of this technique will be to select out embryos where both the sperm donor and egg donor are carriers for one or more genetic diseases. Left to traditional reproduction any child they created would have a 1 in 4 chance of expressing the genetic disease. This technique can eliminate that, and even ensure that the child will not be a carrier for the disease.

This will not lead to a society where the rich will create genetically superior babies while the rest of us fall behind, unless in the future rich people decide to reproduce exclusively through in vitro fertilization. Going through this procedure just so little Noah and Madison will have blond hair and blue eyes seems pretty stupid, and it would only work if the parents are carriers anyway.

Again, this procedure doesn’t introduce any novel genes, it is simply a way to discard potential children before they are implanted. It doesn’t create a superior baby, it merely removes ones that don’t match the parent’s goals. If you have 12 frozen embryos you could use this technique to get the pick of the litter, but that’s it. This is not genetic engineering, in fact it’s a way to get some of the benefits of genetic engineering (creating babies free of genetic disease) without any manipulation of genes.

A little bit of understated sarcasm on my part.

Possibly followed by declines in population. That’s happening in Europe now.

As one doctor said…it will still be your baby…just that it will be a 1 in a million that doesn’t have problems x,y,z, etc…

I tend to agree with you but with one caveat…that we may breed out an essential part of us that we think of as negative but is really a positive. Not sure what that would be but it is possible.

Still, given the choice I think it would be worth the risk and humanity better off/more happy as a result.