Designer Babies

Repository founder Robert Graham

Doran Blake, one of America’s first ‘designer babies’, was conceived (artificially) using sperm specially selected to make him a genius in science, music and art. He is one the hundreds born at the Repository for Germinal Choice in California, founded by Dr Robert Graham in 1980, better known as the Genius Factory. It aimed to offer sperm from the world’s finest intellects to women who wanted a genius child through IVF. Doran’s father is ‘Batch 28’.

When Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’ born in 1976, IVF was hailed a ‘treatment for infertility’. Any criticism was silenced by the emotive appeal to compassion. Any suggestion of ‘designer babies’ was called scare-mongering. Aldous Huxley had warned of such in Brave New World. Debate among ethicists concluded that the good end (‘treatment’ for infertility) justified the means; it also allowed experimentation on, and destruction of, human embryos up to 14 days.

Now ‘assisted human reproduction’ is accepted in most countries as a standard medical procedure, despite its low success and expense.

The procedure is deceptively simple. Eggs are ‘harvested’ by a process called superovulation (not without its own risks), which enables a woman to produce more than one ovum in a cycle. Eggs are mixed in a petri dish with sperm. A number of embryos are then selected for their ‘quality’ and placed in a womb. If not deep frozen for future use, the rest are either experimented on or destroyed. All the elements required for ‘making’ a baby in the laboratory (ova, sperm, womb) can be provided by men and women who are strangers.

In IVF, the designer baby syndrome is present: in screening for candidates, in selecting gametes (eggs and sperm), and in the ‘quality control’ by medical technicians in their selection of embryos. Prenatal tests screen children for abnormalities or to determine sex. And then end in abortion if undesirable. This has been described, especially by the disabled, as a form of genetic cleansing. Some say spina bifida and Down Syndrome are being eliminated- but reality is that it is people that are eliminated.

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PDG) involves testing for so-called ‘high-risk’ diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntingtons’s disease before implantation. It can also be used to produce an embryo with some desired characteristic, as in the case of Adam Nash, who was genetically selected to save his sister, Molly, suffering from Fanconi’s anaemia, a genetically inherited condition. In the Nash case, the destruction of other embryos was, tragically, not even seem to be an issue; it is a ‘routine procedure’ in IVF, one blithely observed. The main concern was the ethics of making a child to save the life of another child, itself a serious moral issue.

Likewise, with an increased understanding of the human genome, scientists look to alter the genetic make-up of ova, sperm, or embryos, using genetic engineering to replace defective genes with healthy ones – or even alter inherited genetic characteristics such as height or hair colour, for purely cosmetic reasons.

Genetic splicing and manipulation is already possible (so-called CRISPR/Cas9). A Chinese scientist altered the genes of two girls in embryo and brought them to term. He was jailed for doing so.  But recently  Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority gave restricted approval for experimentation on embryos up to 14 days. The restrictions indicate that gene splicing is still felt to be morally questionable. But for how long? The increased acceptance by society of the idea of producing children ‘to order’, and the assumption that children with genetic defects are best liquidated – as proposed by the Australian philosopher, Peter Singer – must be a cause for alarm. Is it a new form of eugenics?

“People have been playing God ever since they first decided to control which children they would have by abortion, contraceptive use and abstinence,” Professor Julian Savulescu, ethicist at Melbourne University, said in 2000. “The fundamental question is to what degree should parents be allowed decide which children they will bear.” Society now seems to be willing to allow perfect license.

‘Eugenics’ (Greek = well born) is the attempt to improve the qualities of a species, by selective breeding. Positive eugenics, practiced by the British to produce able slaves in the West Indies, involves selecting ‘ideal’ types for breeding. Negative eugenics, practiced by the Nazis, describes attempts to rid the species, or the ‘genetic pool’ of people with undesirable traits.

In the 1860s, Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, proposed that the English should guide the development of the human genetic heritage. The advent of modern genetics in 1900 transformed theories into organized movements advocating negative eugenics, enthusiastically supported by those such as Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and politicians, especially in England, the US, and Germany. Between 1910 and 1930, 24 States passed sterilization laws aimed at the ‘mentally retarded, criminals, and the insane’, to remove such ‘misfits’ from society.

The efficiency of the Nazi regime so shocked the world that ‘eugenics’ fell into disrepute, but never disappeared. Eugenics has reappeared under a new guise. The American Eugenics Society was renamed the Society for the Study of Social Biology in 1973. Articles appear in bioethical journals to justify eugenics. They reject involuntary measures aimed at populations or sections of a population, and propose a ‘voluntary, individual eugenics’, with the object of improving the ‘quality’ of children we now can decide to produce or eliminating those without the desired characteristics. In a word, designer babies is the new word for eugenics.

Eugenic practices are now offered as another commodity legitimized by medical institutions, and taken for granted. Few now contest that the phenomenon of the ‘designer baby’ raises questions about the direction of modern society. Access to contraception, abortion and IVF are now proclaimed as ‘reproductive rights’, which include the ‘right’ to a child, a ‘right’ to whatever particular kind of child one wants, if technology can provide.

The Church has consistently opposed eugenics, which is a form of discrimination on the basis of race, class, ability, or health status. The Church teaches that it is immoral to separate procreation from the act that expresses the marital union. This is God’s design, which respects the dignity of the child who is not simply the product of its parents.

The Church issued Donum Vitae in 1987 and Dignitas Personae (2008) on IVF and related topics. They reject all experimentation that is not aimed at healing existing children, all destruction or freezing of embryos, and all IVF procedures, including artificial insemination as offences against the God-given dignity of the child and the sacredness of the conjugal act. A child is to be begotten not made but once in existence, irrespective of the question how he or she was conceived, that child deserves absolute respect as made in the image of God.

As a human being, an embryo is not to be used as a means to an end, endangered, or destroyed. But in a world where God has been effectively forgotten, where millions are aborted annually, and hundreds of thousands of embryos experimented on or consigned to the deep freeze, such teaching falls on deaf ears. Where God is denied, man tends to become God, creator of life and death, acknowledging no limits to what he is permitted to do.

How about Doran Blake? Though ‘reproduced’ by (and qualified to be) a scientist, he himself has opted to study religion: “I want to feel I have a place in the universe.”