Are designer babies ethical?

Superior health
March 3, 2021
Montana McLaughlin-Tom

Let’s define “designer babies” first

When thinking about what a designer baby is, many think of children that have had their genetic code re-done. However, according to its definition, “designer baby” refers to: “a baby whose genes have been chosen by its parents and doctors so that it has particular characteristics”.

If we look closely at that definition, simply choosing the gender of your child causes them to fall into the category of “designer baby”.

So, if designer babies could refer to anything that the parents choose over what was naturally created without the help of medicine, the ethics in regards to designer babies should consider that as well.

Which then brings about the question of: if the ethics of designer babies includes the question of health enhancement versus personal choice, where do we draw the line — or how do we even draw that line?

To begin with, let’s consider the positives of designer babies, specifically the promise of superior health and the hidden positive of the advancement in medical research/capabilities.

No more bad genetics 

An age-old advantage of embryonic enhancement is the promise of improved health. Children would be born with the guarantee of no more genetic mutations, inherited predispositions, or life-altering conditions like birth defects.

Currently, the majority of  tests that are available do achieve this goal, just not in the way most people think. Using preimplantation genetic tests (PGT), clinics are able to screen embryos for specific conditions, such as Down’s Syndrome, and parents are able to choose whether to implant that embryo based on test results and personal preference.

Advanced research

A hidden positive to designer babies is the use and advancement of genetic editing methods. In 2019, the University of Pennsylvania launched a trial using CRISPR, a genetic editing method, to fight cancer by removing and modifying immune system cells, and then re-infusing them back into the body.

The idea that science could fully treat cancer, or any other type of dangerous illness, by creating a personalized solution is incredibly appealing. And, if this works, the door is open to so many other diseases being treated this way. In fact, studies are already being launched in Europe, the U.S., and Canada.

The world is our oyster

If methods such as CRISPR are the gateway in being able to find new treatments for illnesses such as cancer or inherited genetic problems like blindness, then this can be seen as one way to avoid the entire ‘designer baby’ ethical conundrum — as these illnesses could be fixed, but not at the embryonic stage.

How is this different?

The main difference between these studies and designer babies is that CRISPR will be used on adults, rather than embryo’s, meaning that any change that is created will not be passed down to future generations.

There are still several concerns with the allowance of designer babies and associated research, in a larger sociological context. These include the effect designer babies would have on financial gaps within a community, as well as the fear of creating a super-human-like society.

Increases socio-financial gaps in society

Currently, the cost for in-virtro fertilization (IVF) in the United States is roughly $20,000 for one run including genetic tests to ensure how viable an embryo is before implementation. In the UK, the cost is on average around £5,000; and in both countries, insurance or public funding for IVF treatments are hard to find.

Not only that...

These costs do not include the extra tests a “true” designer baby would need (i.e., improving intelligence, height, weight, etc.), meaning that the people who could afford these types of IVF treatments would belong to a specific financial class. If ‘perfect’ children only exist in one particular societal niche, then the more ‘imperfect’ humans would become associated with lower societal and financial status; which in turn could bring back a Victorian-esque society where the wealthy preserve not only their money, but also their genetics.

Additionally, if designer babies become a signifier of certain niches within society, this brings about the potential problem of designer babies being dictated by a consumerist market, specifically in what types of research and tests are available.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

The concept of being able to fully eradicate several dangerous illnesses within future generations is appealing. However, without strict guidelines and ethical debates, opening up the door for one improvement will ultimately open up many other doors that may not have been considered.

What ‘door’ are we talking about?

While there has been a positive outcome to the use of CRISPR, there are also blatant fears. For example: what if embryo enhancement developed to the point where parents/countries could create super-soldier children? Should that be allowed, even in research stages?

In this light, the allowance of designer babies is a global concern that could mimic the race for any previous ‘global-power’ (i.e. the Cold War and the race/fear of nuclear warfare).

And should this pandora’s box be opened?

There are many reasons as to why designer babies could be seen as a positive for the human race, regardless as to socio-economic situations, or even moral concerns. The bright future of having no cancer, or any type of harmful genetic disease has its appeal.

Yet there is also a large, underlying issue that can touch almost every pro and con for designer babies: it takes out the random chance that having babies innately implies. When couples go to reproduce, there is a large chance that hidden genes could pop up in a pregnancy.

This type of chance is taken away with designer babies as parents begin to shop for what they want and, ultimately, who they want.

So then…

If the concept of designer babies also inherently includes the debate of these babies being created out of choices rather than genetic improvement, how far should we go?

Disclaimer: We are by no means supporting one side of the argument over the other. We collate different views and expand on them to give you a better understanding of the motivation behind these views.
Photo credit: Edward Jenner from Pexels
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