Family Issues

Billion Dollar Babies

The brave new world of designer children

|

Remember when the desktop publishing revolution gave anyone armed with a LaserWriter the power to design posters, brochures, and various other printed matter that had once been left to trained professionals? A tsunami of mismatched typefaces and ugly clip-art was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and for many years, it was unsafe to look at the company newsletter without risking permanent retinal damage. So imagine what will happen when we all have the power to create our own highly customized designer babies.

In February, we took one short-lived baby step closer to that scenario. That's when Dr. Jeff Steinberg, director of The Fertility Institutes, a private medical practice with offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Mexico, told The Wall Street Journal about his plans to offer parents more aesthetic control over the manufacture of their offspring. A couple would specify their choices of hair color, eye color, and skin tone, and then, using an established procedure known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), Fertility Institutes would identify which of the parents' in vitro embryos were most likely to produce a child with those traits. The process wouldn't be foolproof, Dr. Steinberg qualified, but parents who employed it would substantially increase their chances of getting the baby of their dreams. The Fertility Institutes began promoting this pending service on its website in December; Dr. Steinberg told the Journal that about "half a dozen" clients had inquired about the service since then.

For nearly two decades, fertility specialists have used PGD to screen embryos for cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and other genetic diseases. It can also be used simply for sex selection, and many clinics now offer this service. Dr. Steinberg's Fertility Institutes is one of them. On its website, it bills itself as "the world's leading center for 100% gender selection." Employing tactics more commonly associated with car dealerships and Vegas casinos, it also offers "low-interest 100% financing" and discounted travel packages that include airline tickets, hotel reservations, transportation, entertainment, dining, and child care services.

That's a refreshingly customer-oriented approach, but in the world of cutting-edge medicine, giving customers what they ask for is not always considered a virtue. While PGD in the service of avoiding disease has achieved widespread acceptance, PGD in the service of aesthetics and non-medical screening is a lot more controversial. "This is cosmetic medicine," Dr. Steinberg told the Journal. "Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it." In a subsequent interview on CBS, he echoed these sentiments: "I think it's very important that we not bury our head in the sand and pretend these advances are not happening."

As Dr. Steinberg's plans to offer trait selection to prospective parents attracted more and more media coverage, however, he was subjected to more and more criticism. Some genetic experts said he couldn't deliver what he was promising. Others said he shouldn't. On March 2, just two weeks after The Wall Street Journal article ran, Dr. Steinberg aborted his plan to offer this new service: "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," a statement on his website read. "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." According to his publicist, Dr. Steinberg has no interest in commenting any further on the subject.

But even if Dr. Steinberg's head is now firmly buried in the sand, his words continue to resonate: These advances are happening. There are parents who'd like to utilize such services. If we are generally in favor of using PGD for medical reasons—of course, many people object to even this sort of usage—why are we so wary of extending the technology even further?

Media coverage of Dr. Steinberg's proposed trait selection service typically adopted a gently proscriptive tone. The New York Daily News, for example, likened it to building a customizable teddy bear. Todayshow.com compared it to ordering take-out food. The obvious question underlying these analogies: How can we treat creating a child as trivially and superficially as we treat buying fast-food via the drive-thru window? This question can easily be reversed, however: Why are so many of us content to exercise more control over our most quotidian consumer choices than we are over the most consequential decision we can make as humans? Could it be that parents determined to micro-managing their progeny's eye color are the ones who care the most?

Of course, it's not merely the prospect of green-eyed tots with complementary skin tones (and merely average brainpower) that keep transhumanists, bioethicists, and Hollywood screenwriters up at night. Eventually, genetic engineers will figure out ways to not only screen genes for mutations, but also to alter them in ways that increase intelligence or musical aptitude, augment height, amplify specific personality traits, et cetera. At that point, a new age of reproduction will be upon us, with parents eagerly designing a new generation of super-babies with all the latest bells and whistles.

If they have the money to pay for such services, that is. Critics believe a "genetic divide" will eventually develop: While the rich fortify their heirs with the best genes money can buy, the poor will be stuck playing the genetic lottery. Eventually, life on earth will devolve into a massive reality series, with a ragtag tribe of Average Joes pitted against an invincible army of genius supermodel millionaires.

But are we really so sure that this is how it's going to play out? Think of the smartest people you know—are they also the richest people you know? Enhancing our wealthiest embryos with extra IQ points and superior athletic skills may simply lead to a lot of investment bankers bitterly disappointed in how their son the anthropology professor/yoga instructor turned out.

In addition, what's better for society in the long run—smart rich people or dumb rich people? Maybe Bill Gates' designer baby will grow up to discover a way to make gene enhancement more affordable. Maybe he'll also set up a foundation that offers gene enhancement "scholarships" to families who would otherwise not be able to obtain these services.

One thing we know about humans: They behave in unpredictable ways. They use new technologies in ways the inventors of those technologies never imagined. At this point, when we haven't even discovered what kind of cultural impact giving parents the ability to choose their child's eye color might have, how can we know what it is about next-stage designer babies that we're trying to protect ourselves from?

As The Wall Street Journal reported, PGD is currently "unfettered by any state or federal regulations in the U.S." That freedom from government interference has allowed geneticists to develop procedures that have resulted in thousands of healthy pregnancies since the early 1990s. As the potential for aesthetic and non-medical genetic screening grows more concrete, however, opposition to PGD and related technologies is manifesting itself at the legislative level. A few weeks ago in Georgia, for example, the state senate passed a bill that appears to make PGD illegal—its text reserves embryo "solely for the purposes of initiating a human pregnancy by means of transfer to the uterus of a human female for the treatment of human infertility." The Center for Genetics and Society is calling for Congressional hearings regarding the fertility industry. According to Slate's William Saletan, these efforts mark the beginning of "a nationwide project to regulate the emerging industry of embryo production." For anyone who believes not only in the possibilities of extending reproductive options, but merely protecting the ones we currently enjoy, it is no time to have one's head in the sand.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.