We have experienced bouts of moral panic over “designer babies” ever since the 1960s when in vitro fertilization was first being discussed as a real possibilty. IVF opponents claimed that parents would not bond with their “test tube” babies like those produced the old-fashioned way. A late 1960s Newsweek poll reported that a majority of Americans thought that developing IVF was “against God’s will.” Today, Americans and most of the rest of the world welcome IVF as a way for people to have children. Then fertility specialists developed pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) in which embryos created using IVF where tested for deleterious genetic diseases before being implanted. This enables parents to avoid genetic diseases that have in some cases afflicted their families for generations. Again, bioconservative handwringers hoping to provoke fears of Nazi eugenics darkly suggested that PGD would open the gateway to having parents select the inevitable “blue-eyed blond-haired” designer babies. Why bioconservatives would think that parents of other ethnic heritages would be inclined to make that genetic choice remains a mystery to me.
The latest outbreak of designer baby moralizing has been spurred by the development of the amazing CRISPR genome-editing technique that enables researchers to make very precise genetic changes. Last year, some Chinese researchers reported on their work using CRISPR to edit the genomes of some defective embyos to see if they could fix a specific genetic flaw. This work provoked calls for banning any genetic modification of human embryos. Last December, a meeting convened by the National Academy of Sciences declined to endorse such a ban, although it urged researchers to go slow.
Today an NPR report, “Breaking Taboo, Swedish Scientists Seeks To Edit DNA of Healthy Human Embryos,” stokes the perennial “designer baby” fears. Actually what researcher Fredrik Lanner and his team at the Karolinska Institute is doing is seeking to edit genes in donated embryos to better understand infertility problems. All of the embryos will be destroyed before 14 days of development.
Since such research is allegedly breaking a taboo, there must be shaman who wants to enforce it on the benighted populace. So NPR finds the most alarmist of anti-technology alarmists, Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, to fulfill this role. A prominent leftwing bioconservative, Darnovsky intones:
“The production of genetically modified human embryos is actually quite dangerous,” Darnovsky says. “It’s a step toward attempts to produce genetically modified human beings. This would be reason for grave concern.” …
But even if it’s safe, Darnovsky and others still worry about what designer babies would do to society.
“If we’re going to be producing genetically modified babies, we are all too likely to find ourselves in a world where those babies are perceived to be biologically superior. And then we’re in a world of genetic haves- and have-nots,” Darnovsky says. “That could lead to all sorts of social disasters. It’s not a world I want to live in.”
First, this is very early days and none of the embryos edited by Lanner will become children, so bloviating against designer babies is a tad premature. Second, and most importantly, note that Darnovsky is against the technology even if it’s safe. In other words, it is supposedly ethical to prevent parents from using a technology that would spare their children of horrible diseases and, some time in the future, enable them to have stronger bodies, more effective immune systems and more nimble brains.
For a fuller response to bioconservative ethical nonsense see my article, “The Moral Case for Designer Babies,” or even better read my book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution.