As perplexing as it sounds, designer babies are a thing now. Genetic engineering is now offering chances for the parents to manipulate genes in the future child in order to change or insert characteristics like eye colour or gender — thus the name designer baby. At the one hand, it allows to cut down chances of future diseases and on the other, there are ethical concerns, writes Hiya Islam
IF YOU knew that editing out a few genes from your unborn child could save it from a confirmed type of cancer, would you still say no? Would you say no to the chances of your child being healthy, being happy? Of course not. But here, the answer goes beyond simply wanting the betterment of your child. With such a massive burst in genetic technology come questions arising from ethics, religion and conscience.
Designer babies are genetically modified to adopt the desired traits the parents want the future offspring to express — a real-life, custom made baby. Features such as hair colour, eye colour, characteristic nose structure or eye shape, skin colour, and basically everything in a human can be decided. But ‘everything’ is a vast and vague term. The application can be used to improve intelligence, alter the height and pick the gender of the baby. However, it has attracted interest for the genetic disorders and diseases it can prevent. This implies the fact that the things generations have suffered from such as cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, Down syndrome, Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s et cetera can go away forever.
Before dwelling on how this technology can impact us, if legalised worldwide, let us look at the procedure itself. It involves two major techniques — PGD (Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis) and IVF (In-vitro Fertilisation). At first, eggs are retrieved from the mother. Mothers are put on medication to allow hyper ovulation or release of multiple eggs. Eggs are fertilised with the father’s sperm in a lab and hence the term in vitro which means ‘outside the body’. Over the course of 5-6 days, the zygote is allowed to grow into an embryo in a specialised embryology lab. Then, a set of specific cells are extracted from each embryo and sent for analysis which is known as PGD. Here, the genes or chromosomes of the embryos are examined. The analysis can reveal which embryos contain genes for genetic diseases or disorders, gender and other physical traits. Healthy embryos are chosen and implanted in the womb of the mother. Rest of the embryos are discarded or sent for research with the permission from parents. The same steps are followed in the case of ‘saviour sibling’. The embryo which is likely to produce the tissue its elder brother/sister suffering from a said form of leukaemia or anaemia needs is selected and given birth to.
However, this method will only allow choosing traits available within the gene pool of the two parents only. What if you wanted more? What if you want traits neither you nor your spouse has? In that case, gene-editing comes into play. And things get even more heated because this tool allows a free choice over the selection of genes. Gift your future baby with insane physical prowess, genius IQ, vocal cords of a goddess and what not. Sounds amazing. But how does this impact the baby, the future family tree and the people around? Gender selection is already banned in countries with societal issues such as female infanticide. But it still does not stop couples from receiving the service in countries where it is legal. What if your baby, 20 years later, does not want to be the tennis player you hoped for? Maybe your daughter grows up to hate the green eyes she’s got and chooses to go out with hazel contacts instead. Your son looks more like your favourite actor than yourself. That’s right. The baby has no say in however you wish to alter its personality or physique.
The discarded embryos are not to be forgotten. They bring up a number of concerns and unrest from pro-life activists. Despite being unborn, the zygote or first human cell after fertilisation, if given a chance will grow into a complete human baby or your child. Killing embryos are technically murder. But many researchers, scientists and social activists would beg to differ.
Designer babies will have a marked difference according to the way they are chosen or edited. Improving cognitive abilities means the child will carry on their schooling with relatively less effort and so on. This could lead to prejudice due to unfair advantage. The procedure is costly and can only be afforded by affluent families. It could lead to a class division, designer and non-designer babies — only complementing the current status-quo of the world.
But does this mean carrier couples who have chances of having a diseased offspring continue conceiving normally? The pressure to find cures is increasing and the solutions are not doing so well in reality. The Fertility Institutes at Los Angeles, USA is providing gender and eye colour selection programs. A UK ethics group has already given a yes to designer babies recently. That too for non-medical reasons, their arguing point is it causes no social inequality, despite there are voices who think otherwise.
However, gene-editing in embryos is strictly prohibited in UK and other nations worldwide. But it still does not stop a few like the Chinese biophysics researcher, He Jiankui who claims to have created the world’s first gene-edited baby. Although there is still no proof of the existence of the babies (twins), Robin Lovell-Badge, organiser of the scientific summit in Hong Kong where Jiankui publicly announced his work in November 2018 firmly believes the claim to be true. Because during a conversation, Lovell-Badge figured that the fellow scientist had made a mistake with the mutation he had supposedly introduced into the babies. Lovell-Badge said, ‘If he was going to make this up, he would have made it up much better than this’.
And this is why the technology, despite great potential, has great risks. We still do not know how inserting or deleting genes can affect the individual later in life. A gene can be responsible for a number of functions. This edit is later passed on to future generations. And in case an error disrupts, it would be too late to reverse the mistake unless he or she tragically dies. It is also possible that the edit results in new disorders which are obviously unexplored and unknown.
Then again, Dr Jeffrey Steinberg, founder of The Fertility Institutes, who also served as a medic in the team involved in Louise Brown’s birth (world’s first test-tube baby) said, ‘It (IVF) was new, people didn't understand it and they were afraid. Now IVF is not even a cocktail party curiosity’.
Hiya Islam is a student of BRAC University.
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