Issue 31 / 22 August 2011

BACK in 1997, the movie Gattaca painted a picture of a technological dystopia where citizens conceived the old-fashioned way without the benefits of genetic manipulation formed a despised underclass.

The best science fiction is really always about us and the kind of society we are capable of creating.

So Gattaca preyed on fears that our growing mastery of the genome would lead to the creation of designer babies and, ultimately, change what it means to be human.

The science isn’t at that point yet, but there’s every reason to believe commercial interests will seek to offer such services once it is.

As I wrote earlier this year, genetic tests that purport to reveal children’s innate abilities or other traits are widely spruiked on the internet.

The saving grace at the moment is that the information provided by the tests isn’t particularly meaningful, and the capacity to genetically foster the kinds of talents ambitious parents might wish to see in their offspring is still just a glint in an online huckster’s eye.

The issue we are already facing, though, is the one that has always been at the front line of the designer baby debate — sex selection.

In this country, couples using IVF are not allowed to select embryos for implantation based on sex (except in the case of sex-linked genetic conditions) , but there’s nothing to stop those who have the funds and determination from travelling to the US or other countries that allow the practice.

Perhaps more disturbing is the proliferation of commercial laboratories offering DIY testing kits over the internet that can reveal the sex of an embryo early in a woman’s pregnancy.

Unlike the genetic tests that claim to reveal sporting or other ability, these ones may actually work.

Certainly, the technology is there. Researchers reported in JAMA last week that tests sold online and elsewhere could identify the presence of genetic sequences from the Y chromosome in maternal blood, giving a reliable result from 7 weeks’ gestation.

Commercial websites trumpet the tests’ benefits in giving parents “more time” to prepare for the arrival of their son or daughter.

“Standing in the baby aisle, wouldn’t it be nice to know whether to choose the pink blanket rather than settling for the generic green one?” asks one US laboratory.

The words “termination” or “abortion” are conspicuously absent from the sites, but it seems a fair bet that couples who are prepared to shell out the $399 demanded by one Sydney outfit for its test might not be doing it just so they can order their pink or blue curtains a few weeks earlier.

It’s difficult to see how regulators can crack down on such practices. If the tests are safe, if they do what they claim to do, how can you justify banning them, even supposing that is possible in our online world?

But allowing embryos to be selected — or terminated — on the basis of sex or any other desired characteristic does seem like the top of a very slippery slope.

The world portrayed in Gattaca may still be well beyond our technological capabilities, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 22 August 2011

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2 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Sliding towards designer babies

  1. simonacollins says:

    Any solutions? Is a world like gattaca just a matter of time?

  2. drjohn says:

    A slippery slope indeed, viz China and the excess of males resulting already in cross-border migration, financial coercion and abduction of women from Vietnam and other parts of SE Asia.
    What the earth needs is population reduction, not designer babies.
    Unfortunately, one predisposes to the other in areas of stable population and dubious ethics.

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