Designer Babies

Freaking Out Over 'Designer Babies,' Again

An NPR report on "three-parent babies" in Ukraine provokes bioethical handwringing.

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"What we're seeing is a fast slide down a very slippery slope toward designer babies," warned Marcy Darnovsky on NPR's Morning Edition today. She portentuously added, "We could see parents feeling eager to give their children traits like greater strength, needs less sleep. Some people are saying that, 'Yes, there are genes for IQ and we could have smarter babies.'"

What has alarmed Darnovsky, a left-wing bioconservative from the Center for Genetics and Society? The fact that specialists at the Nadiya fertility clinic in Ukraine have used pronuclear transfer to help some parents to give birth to healthy babies.

First, a bit of biology. Every human egg cell contains between 100,000 and 600,000 energy-producing mitochondria floating in the cytoplasm outside the cell nucleus. While the vast majority of the DNA that makes up our genomes resides inside the nuclei of our cells, each mitochondrion has its own small genome consisting of 37 genes. Mutated mitochondrial genes can can cause disease. It is estimated that mitochrondrial diseases are one of the most common groups of genetic diseases, with a minimum prevalence of greater than 1 in 5000 in adults.

Pronuclear transfer is used in cases where the mitochondria in a woman's eggs are mutated in some way that would produce disease in her children or cause her infertility. The procedure involves removing the two pronuclei, or unfused nuclei, of the egg and sperm from a day-old embryo and transfering them into an enucleated donor egg containing healthy mitochondria. Babies born via this technique thus have genes derived from three people: the nuclear genes from the mother and father, plus a comparatively tiny number of mitochondrial genes from the egg donor. Hence the sobriquet "three-parent babies."

Since mitochondrial DNA is inherited from a baby's mother, female children born using this technique will pass along the healthy donor mitochondria to their progeny. Bioconservatives like Darnovsky decry this as germ-line genetic engineering.

"It is pioneering work," the Columbia biologist Dietrich Egli said in the NPR story. Not exactly. The real pioneers were fertility specialist Jacques Cohen and his colleagues at St. Barnabas Hospital in New Jersey, who successfully used a similar technique back in 2001 to help women give birth to 17 babies. Instead of tranferring the pronuclei, as is done in Ukraine, Cohen transferred ooplasm containing mitochondria from healthy donor eggs to the eggs of women experiencing infertility. This prompted some similarly overwrought worries about designer babies, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2001 essentially banned the procedure by asserting that ooplasm transfer was an "investigational new drug" requiring agency approval.

In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report endorsing the use of mitochondrial replacement therapies (MRT) in embryos to help parents have healthy babies. One catch: The report said it should only be used to produce boys, thus mitigating the possibility that the donor mitochondria would be passed along to future generations. But even that cannot proceed in the U.S. Since 2015, Congress has included provisions in its annual federal appropriations laws that prohibit the FDA from accepting applications for clinical research using MRT. Therefore, clinical research using MRT in human beings cannot legally proceed in the United States.

In light of this prohibition, American fertility specialist John Zhang in 2016 performed a successful pronuclear transfer in Mexico for a Jordanian woman burdened with the mitochondrial mutation associated with Leigh's Disease. The illness causes brain lesions, which killed her first two children. In August 2017, the FDA sent a letter to Zhang ordering his Darwin Life Company to cease marketing the MRT treatment on its website in the United States.

Now NPR is reporting that the Ukrainian scientists have formed a company, Darwin Life-Nadiya, with a New York clinic to market the service to U.S. women willing to travel to Ukraine. Ukrainian women will pay about $8,000 for the procedure; for foreigners, it'll be about $15,000. Hopefully the FDA will be more tolerant this time. So long as our Congress, our regulators, and the majority of our bioethicists continue to stand in their way, Americans suffering from the burdens of genetic disease and hoping to give birth to healthy children will be sadly forced to engage in this kind of reproductive medical tourism.

But what about Darnovsky's claim that MRT is the beginning of a fast slide down a very slippery slope toward designer babies? Bring it on. Parents using modern biotechnology to endow their children with longer, healthier, smarter, and perhaps even happier lives? It's hard to see any ethical problem with that.

For more background, see my lecture in Moscow on "Designer Babies and Human Enhancement":

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  1. For more background, see my lecture in Moscow…

    Ronaldski Baileyvich, sneaky Russian spy.

  2. Americans suffering from the burdens of genetic disease and hoping to give birth to healthy children

    Why do we as a culture seem to consider adoption such a horrible thing to do?

    1. How many kids have you adopted?

      1. Kind of irrelevant because I haven’t birthed any kids either.

        But I have looked into it. As an unmarried dude it’s nearly impossible though. I hope to do so someday if I do manage to get married. It’s the best thing you can do.

        So fuck off.

        1. I hate your snarky remarks about Tom Woods, Mr. Sarwark, but I think adopting a child is a beautiful selfless act that should be applauded. Well done, Mr. Sarwark

        2. But I have looked into it. As an unmarried dude with my browser history it’s nearly impossible though.

          FTFY

          1. Lolz

          2. I only looked up “How to get kids into my van?” because my little cousins were being a pain in the ass, and we were late for their little league game.

            1. “being” or receiving?

              1. I ain’t no pedophile. And even if I was, it’s well documented that I ain’t attracted to white folk.

        3. What does birthing kids have to do with adopting them?

          Is this some kind of “birth one, adopt one” program you want mandated?

    2. Yes. Nothing says decadence more than creating designer babies while we have an abundance of abandoned children in orphanages.

      1. The issue with MRT isn’t about designer babies, but about “designer eggs” which can support otherwise healthy nuclear DNA. To argue against MRT as a way to improve fertility is more akin to saying why have neonatal care (to reduce miscarriage) when adoption is still an option.

        So while there is an ethical slippery slope towards “designer babies”, MRT is basically at the top of the slope. You could still outlaw methods of selecting the nuclear DNA based on the characteristics those genes map to and prevent the ethical conundrum of designer babies, while giving women with faulty mitochondria the ability to pass their genes on to their children.

        1. I don’t think any of this should be banned.

        2. Wow. That was actually the most illuminating comment that I’ve ever seen posted here. Thanks for the clarification.

          I wouldn’t suggest making such practices illegal. I just think that there are ethical questions raised.

          1. I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.

            Sure there are ethical questions about designing humans by “guiding” the evolutionary process. But Congress in its infinite wisdom has banned something that they obviously know nothing about because they want to avoid a hypothetical ethical situation that doesn’t apply.

            1. No. I was being honest. Not joking

            2. They don’t want to send the wrong message.

            3. Science denier.

            4. I’m agnostic, but from a marketing perspective it’s really tough to avoid the eugenics smear when you put Darwin into the name of your company.
              Just an observation.

    3. B: Who says that “the culture” considers adoption horrible? As of 2016, there are about 107,000 kids in the U.S available for adoption and more than 56,000 had been adopted.

      There is nothing wrong with other folks seeking to overcome their infertility in order to have genetically-related kids either.

      1. So, I will say that I think the culture does consider it to be less than. It’s the boobie prize to having a “real kid”.

        Most people won’t come out and say it, because it’s deeply unsettling to many people to voice this belief. But people are willing to travel the globe and pay tens of thousands of dollars before taking an orphan who already exists.

        Even from just your statistics, about 50% of all orphans in the US are not adopted. And the number of orphans available at all is dwarfed by the number of people having children in a given year. Even with that, adoption is so frequently seen as a last resort that nearly 50% each year go unadopted.

        Let’s not even talk about the 153 million estimated orphans worldwide. I certainly won’t pretend that all of these kids are easily there to adopt, and the problem is just people aren’t doing anything. But about 2% of the entire world population is orphaned children. And people still go and travel to the other side of the world, and spend a very, very large amount of time to make a new child rather than adopt.

        1. I would avoid such generalizing. Some people value adoptions and others don’t. I don’t know if you could say it is a culture-wide value.

          1. It’s widespread enough that not even an extra 50,000 orphans can be absorbed by families in a population of 300+ million.

            1. 1st world living costs 1st world money. Not everyone is rich enough to support six kids, for example.

              1. And, as a follow up to that, regulation on adoption might be a consideration in that those who may wish to adopt very likely do not meet said criteria. Even you, above, said you looked into it and realized you would never be approved.

                So, just remember that regulation has adverse consequences in most every aspect of life.

                1. 1st world living costs 1st world money. Not everyone is rich enough to support six kids, for example.

                  Yes, and no one is obligated to have kids. I’m just curious about the extremes people will go to to not adopt. As highlighted in this article, quite high.

                  And, as a follow up to that, regulation on adoption might be a consideration in that those who may wish to adopt very likely do not meet said criteria. Even you, above, said you looked into it and realized you would never be approved.

                  Yes, and I wonder about this one as well. Who the hell is in control of this? There’s all this shit to prevent people from doing it, even if you’re a married but gay couple it’s almost impossible. But with all our knowledge of the horrors of the foster care system, I’m amazed we have a system that is so afraid of enabling adoption.

                  So, just remember that regulation has adverse consequences in most every aspect of life.

                  Hey, just because I post on Reason doesn’t mean I don’t know that!

        2. People travel to the other side of the world and spend a very very large amount of money to adopt children also. For someone to spend $15,000 of THEIR money because they want to have a child with their genetics is not outrageous at all. And as far as “designer babies” I’d just as soon have more intelligent and healthy people in the world rather than dull and with birth defects that need costly maintenance for years.

          If my parents passed along some genetic disease to me when they COULD have corrected it before I was born I’d have a hell of a grudge against them. I happen to like seeing and hearing and using my arms and legs.

    4. It’s not that adoption is horrible, it’s that most people want to perpetuate their genes. That, and most people aren’t selfless and more than a few have kids mostly on accident. This isn’t just an American thing, either.

  3. Parents using modern biotechnology to endow their children with longer, healthier, smarter, and perhaps even happier lives? It’s hard to see any ethical problem with that.

    Ron, I trust you’ve read “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl. “People” a few more generations from now will find it hard to believe how primitive and superstitious folks like Darnovsky were — if they think of them at all.

    1. perhaps even happier lives?

      I can definitely see some nightmare scenario coming from people being genetically modified to feel happier all the time.

      1. Morlocks gotta eat too, holmes.

      2. I give it a week before some sick f**k deliberately endows their children with the opposite of all of that.

    2. First, let’s figure out which genes cause bioethical handwringing and then design babies that don’t have those genes.

  4. The common complaint is “If God had intended us to be smarter, he’d have made us smarter.”

    The only appropriate answer is that God apparently wanted us to suffer famine and plague over and over and over again, because it was only his creations — that damned snake and that damned apple and that damned woman — who forced us out of the Garden of Eden to a place where we had to use the brains God gave us to figure out how to eat better, cure diseases and eradicate smallpox, and learn how to fly around the world at 600 mph.

    If God didn’t want any of that, what the hell did he make us do that?

    And if God did want that, if God moves in mysterious ways, then by God! get out of the way and let the rest of us make the future better with the brains you say God gave us but you say we shouldn’t use.

    tl;dr — fuck off, slaver

    1. Maybe. But, ending famine and plague is opposed by almost zero major religions and slightly less than zero ethicists (Malthus, excluded).

      Whereas, it is markedly different to rid the world of famine and disease versus creating a master race just for lolz.

      1. Well, religions are opposed to human bioengineering because it challenges the notions of the eternal soul and God’s unique plan for each and everyone of us.

        What if God’s plan is for us to start making genetic superhumans?

        1. #nobodyknowsforsure

        2. If God is in control, he’s a pretty fucking bad plant engineer.

        3. Or…
          Unintended consequences

      2. People want to have smarter and healthier kids and all of a sudden you’re talking Master Race?

  5. Everyone is freaking out over nothing. “Pronuclear transfer” is just fancy Russian talk for “the couple conceived in the woods surrounding Chernobyl”.

    1. And, of course, as libertarians we are all pro nuclear.

  6. Parents using modern biotechnology to endow their children with longer, healthier, smarter, and perhaps even happier lives? It’s hard to see any ethical problem with that

    I basically agree, and am appalled by the collectivist implications of many blanket ban proposals. However I think this is likely to be a less clear cut matter. If scientists identify some gene that they claim is associated with “increased intelligence”, for example, it could also very well be associated with negative consequences like schizophrenia or other psychological disorders, that I fear would end up being paid for by the rest of the general public (as well as, you know, causing much suffering for the kid and his loved ones).

    Further down the slippery slope, I also fear the consequences of the inevitable “Stunt GM” — sort of a “Transhumanism-by-proxy” — where parents start “designing” their kids with elf ears or horns at best, or without eyes or genitalia at worst, to make some twisted political statement, or just to show off. There are already a lot of ways for people to be utterly awful parents, and we have the potential to create so many more.

    1. Big titties for everyone. Man and woman. That’s the future I crave.

      1. What about those of us that want small, perky titties for our ladies?

        1. To be fair, he didn’t shut the door on big AND perky being an option.

        2. The top set of tits will be the biggest, and then the second row will be slightly smaller, and then the third row will be small and perky.

          1. How udderly enticing!

          2. Rows on a chest or on shelves in a market?

            1. Why do you think it’s called a rack?

              1. Markets with shelves made of boobs holding boobs for sale? Genius.

                1. I don’t understand why y’all need to sully this beautiful future with your childishness.

            2. On their chest. Don’t make this perverse.

  7. Just because science can do something, doesn’t mean it should. Ron is pushing his religion of ‘scientism’ here. As much of a religion as anything with a wizard in the sky, except less intellectually sound, because ‘science’ cannot provide value judgments and has no philosophical basis for its belief system.

    “We can, therefore we should” is slightly more ignorant than “God said so”.

    1. JS: What I am “pushing” is individual liberty. See my column here:

      Ultimately, the gene-editing skeptics are calling for something akin to state-imposed eugenics. Early 20th century Progressive Era eugenicists used government power to forcibly prevent parents, via nonconsensual sterilizations, from passing on traits deemed deleterious. Now, 21st century eugenicists want the government to require people to risk passing along genes that the parents think are deleterious. In both cases, the state is empowered to decide what sorts of people are allowed to be born.

      People who want to take advantage of modern gene editing seek to correct genes that increase the risk of ill health, and perhaps to add genes that boost their child’s chances of having nimbler brains, more vigorous bodies, and greater disease resistance. Individuals may not always make the right decisions with regard to reproduction, but parents are more trustworthy guardians of the human gene pool than any would-be central planners.

      1. I’ll grant you that your argument is strong enough to avoid connotations with early 20th Century eugenicists. Though, equating opposition to such gene editing with early 20th Century eugenicists is quite a leap, especially since it was those same people who pushed back against the 20th Century’s foray into eugenics.

        It wasn’t physicists and biologists who trumpeted the dangers of eugenics. It was those backward Christians like GK Chesterton who were so terribly backward in their belief system by actually thinking there is value in human life.

        Excuse me for not believing that the story won’t play out exactly the same in the 21st Century.

        I agree that the government shouldn’t be involved, but I don’t think that means that all moral questions raised by the practice should be waved away.

        1. Science denier.

        2. There’s a huge difference between culling the herd and enhancing the herd.

    2. “Ron is pushing his religion of ‘scientism’ here. As much of a religion as anything with a wizard in the sky, except less intellectually sound

      It’s much more intellectually sound to believe that someone can be turned into a pillar of salt or that every species of animal on earth was created (therefore existed at the time of the flood) and could fit on a boat made with BC technology.

      Where do you go when you get sick? A hospital or a church? Are we ignoring God’s will by treating illnesses that He created to kill us?

      1. “It’s much more intellectually sound to believe that someone can be turned into a pillar of salt or that every species of animal on earth was created (therefore existed at the time of the flood) and could fit on a boat made with BC technology.”

        Yes. That basically sums up the entirety of Western faiths right there. We can just ignore all the Aquinas, School of Salamanaca, and Saint Augustine stuff, because it’s inconvenient to the narrative here and they used big words.

        Tell me, what ethical basis do practitioners of scientism use to determine what is morally “good” and morally “wrong”?

        “Where do you go when you get sick? A hospital or a church?”

        The churches started the hospitals. So, in the US and throughout most of the Western world, if there was no “church” there would be no hospital. Let’s also ignore that there would not have been much scientific achievement since most of that stuff was funded by those backward churches, as well.

        “Are we ignoring God’s will by treating illnesses that He created to kill us?”

        Again, there is a marked difference between curing disease and creating a master race for lolz. If you honestly think that this ends with curing the Parkinson’s gene then OK, but in reality this will be used for every superficial characteristic that you can imagine.

        1. You’re the one that inserted religion into the debate, and then implied that science was less “intellectually sound.” You’re doing yourself a disservice to attack science on the basis of it’s intellectual soundness, because you open up the debate to discussing religion in the same light.

          Hopefully my previous post illustrates that attacking or marginalizing anyone’s beliefs is a bad way to engage the other viewpoint.

          1. Maybe you are right.

            I was trying to suggest that just doing something, because science has the ability to do so is not a sound argument. But, I think you are better acquainted with this topic than me. So, I you’re right here. I meant no offense

      2. Well, maybe she shouldn’t have looked back. That was just too much for God.

        1. Christ, what an asshole

    3. I want to, it doesn’t hurt anyone else, so if I have that option, I’m going to take it. Who is this “we”? If you don’t want to, nobody is forcing you.

  8. long as I don’t have to be *involved* in the clone wars, whatever…who’s gonna stop it?

    1. Darth Vader did a long time ago. Maybe he’s still around.

  9. Twenty years ago some people were freaking out about parents getting Cochlear implants for their kids. They didn’t think parents had the right to “force” their deaf children to hear, since the deaf were a community with their own culture. Same mentality.

  10. An article with facts in it at Reason. Yay!

  11. Pronuclear transfer is used in cases where the mitochondria in a woman’s eggs are mutated in some way that would produce disease in her children or cause her infertility. In fact, therese more and more solutions for the fertility process given by the new technologies. You know that The procedure involves removing the two pronuclei, or unfused nuclei, of the egg and sperm from a day-old embryo and transfering them into an enucleated donor egg containing healthy mitochondria. This is the new generation made Babies process. Babies born via this technique thus have genes derived from three people: the nuclear genes from the mother and father, plus a comparatively tiny number of mitochondrial genes from the egg donor. Hence the sobriquet “three-parent babies. https://www.chirurgie-geneve.com/in-vitro-tunisie/

  12. But… did the eggs consent, tho?

  13. “Ooplasm” is a really nice word

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