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Designer Babies: A Bioethics Perspective

Abrar Hamim Fayz
School of Life Sciences
Independent University, Bangladesh

January 4th, 2018

Humans often customize things that they possess, use, or consume to align them to their tastes. We do it with cars, houses, clothes, food, and many other things. But what about babies? Yes, modern biology has brought us to a point where we could very soon have babies with characteristics we desire. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

We know genes control the features of an organism. It is possible to manipulate the characteristics of a baby before it develops by altering its genes when it is still an embryo. This can be done through genetic engineering, which has seen widespread application in other animals as well as plants and microbes. Current advances in this technology, led by the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing system, could allow safe and efficient manipulation of human embryos sooner rather than later.

One of the main potential advantages of editing embryos is to remove or fix genes that are responsible for hereditary genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and Huntington’s disease. Already this year, human embryos were edited to remove genetic defects underlying a hereditary heart condition. Even though this was experimental, and the embryos were not implanted for development, early results on the accuracy of the edits are promising. The technology would also allow people to produce what are often referred to as designer babies, with characteristics they consider desirable such as blue eyes, blonde hair, athletic build, and intelligence, creating what they perceive to be the perfect human.

But is it ethical? “Aren’t we trying to outsmart God’s creation?” Many already ask. It is illegal in many countries to even experiment on human embryos. There are no simple answers. If it is possible to preemptively fix cystic fibrosis, wouldn’t it be cruel not to? But it is conceivable that large numbers of people will prioritize good looks and intelligence to produce the aforementioned designer babies. The downstream consequences of this need to be considered. How would such trends affect the gene pool? Would we see a decline in genetic diversity? Designer babies could create a difference between normal humans and near-perfect ones, which would probably reflect economic differences between individuals who can and cannot afford the technology.

For any of this to be possible, the technology still needs to be perfected. Off target changes in gene sequences must be reliably avoided, for instance. Time will reveal whether one day we are going to be surrounded by near-perfect humans, but a little foresight may go a long way in tackling many of the ethical quandaries that will predictably arise.

Abrar is a second-year student in Microbiology. He writes:

"I love to play football, read books, and travel to gain more knowledge. I want to do something with genetics, as it is the most interesting topic I have known since I was a child."

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