Should 'designer babies' be allowed?

By Brown Articles Published 12/4/2009 | Parenting

The fertility clinic operator who grabbed headlines with his promise to help parents create designer babies has backed away from the planfor the moment.

Dr. Jeff Steinberg, director of The Fertility Institutes, earlier this year had offered parents the opportunity to select their future offsprings hair, eye and skin color by genetically testing embryos.

After an outcry, he changed his mind. Though well intended, we remain sensitive to public perception and feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer is far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved, according to a statement posted on the clinics Web site this week.

Fertility experts were quick to note that science didnt support Steinbergs marketing pitch. Although embryos created through assisted reproduction can be tested for some genetic defects, the science of selecting cosmetic traits based on DNA data is not even close to being well established. 

Nobody can do this right now, said Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Technology in  the New York Daily News.

The truth is that we cannot (yet) reliably test embryos for eye color, hair color, skin tones and other cosmetic features, warned a statement from the Center for Human Reproduction, a fertility clinic. It will still take years before all of this will become technically even feasible.

Distaste for the service that Steinberg promoted was widespread. Writing on her blog The Fertility Advocate, Pamela Madsen, founder of the American Fertility Association, said: Some things do need to have some sacred space around it. And the creation of life and the end of life is one of those things that deserves sacred space.

Even the pope railed against the obsessive search for the perfect child last month, according to the New York Daily News. A new mentality is creeping in that tends to justify a different consideration of life and personal dignity, the paper quoted him as saying.

Genetic testing of embryos is nothing new: For some time, fertility doctors have been able to examine days-old embryos created in laboratories by removing a single cell and scanning it for known DNA abnormalities.

However, so far, fertility experts have used the techniqueknown as pre-implantation genetic diagnosisalmost exclusively to screen for serious medical conditions caused by well-identified genetic mutations. Some clinics will also identify the embryos sex.

Steinbergs clinic in Encino, Calif., is known for offering sex selection. His Web site also lists operations in New York and Mexico.

According to 2006 data published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Fertility Institutes transfered far more embryos to women than are recommended under voluntary professional guidelines   a cause for concern. For instance, the clinic transferred an average of six embryos to women under 35 years old; the standards call for no more than two embryos to be transferred to women of this age.

Theres reason to believe Steinberg will make another stab at marketing trait selection to would-be parents, despite the uproar. Genetic health is the wave of the future, he told the New York Daily News. Its already happening and its not going to go away. ... Theres nothing thats going to stop it.