Are Designer Babies Possible?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 27, 2023
Are Designer Babies Possible?

Choosing the genetic traits of your baby is not a viable science at the moment, and the possibility raises many ethical questions. Here's what you should know.

To some people, the idea of “designer babies” is troublesome. They might believe that tinkering with a fetus, embryo, or egg to produce traits you desire is a failure of nature and morality.

Others may see chances to improve the health outlook and desirable traits of their offspring.


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At the moment, no single authority is responsible for addressing the ethical questions that new medical technologies raise. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigates only the safety and efficacy of any technology.

American medical associations have begun debating the issues surrounding designer babies, but they disagree on issues such as parents using fertility techniques having the right to choose their future baby’s gender.

Most say that baby designing, if it comes, will occur incrementally and seem less strange in the future.

Rejecting potential babies — arguably a first step towards designing babies we want — is already common. Across much of the globe, parents screen fetuses and abort girls. Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom ban sex-selection. In the United States, abortions are generally illegal or harder to get.

In Indiana, for example, a law prohibits abortions sought because of “race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability.” Doctors who perform them can be sanctioned by Indiana’s medical boards and held liable in a lawsuit.

What if you’re choosing which embryo you implant? Parents who use in vitro fertilization (IVF) can screen embryos for diseases linked to a single gene like cystic fibrosis — a process known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis — and learn their gender.

Some companies offer expanded testing to assess the risk for conditions linked to more than one gene, including schizophrenia. But skeptics say the science doesn’t live up to the promises. Research claims of discovering genes that predict schizophrenia and depression haven’t quite panned out. Most of the time, multiple thousands of genes contribute to the overall risk of a disease.

Genes may work as an interconnected network, which would make any human engineering even more challenging, says Stanford geneticist Jonathan Pritchard, PhD, who has published research on the complex origins of traits like height. Some parents might want a taller boy, if given the chance, but the science is not close to providing that option.

Imagine that you knew your egg contained flaws in the mitochondria, the energy-producers of a cell. Flaws can kill babies and children, or cause blindness or heart failure over time — although you may have no symptoms. Now imagine that you could bear a child who had your DNA but healthy mitochondria from a donor egg.

The technology to manipulate IVF to avoid certain diseases is further along, now helping to create babies with DNA from three people.

A handful of babies have already been born through a procedure along those lines, which is legal in the United Kingdom and Australia.

The technology called CRISPR (for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) has caused a firestorm over the ethics of human gene editing. A kind of cellular scalper, CRISPR can cut out the gene mutations leading to HIV and sickle cell anemia.

Resistance is stiff. After a Chinese biophysicist announced that he had created the first gene-edited baby, a court sentenced him to three years in prison.

Yet, there’s little chance that you’ll be able to use something like CRISPR to promote attractive traits in designer babies anytime soon. One reason is that complex characteristics like modesty or intelligence aren’t likely to originate in only one gene, so scientists don’t know where to cut, even in theory.

Even if it was possible, Bonnie Steinbock, PhD, a philosopher emerita at the University at Albany, State University of New York, thinks the ethical questions have been overblown.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with the attempt to make our children smarter or kinder," she told the website Live Science. "If we did think that was wrong, we should give up parenting, and put them out on the street."

But gene-altering will continue to generate controversy, mainly negative. A large portion of the public remains suspicious of science, especially in relation to kids. Few parents admit they want to alter embryos genetically to develop designer babies.

As Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker put it in the forum “Can Genius Be Genetically Engineered?” — "Parents won't even feed their kids genetically modified applesauce."


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July 27, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN