Do you want a baby with green eyes? Olive skin? Long legs? More importantly, should it even be legal to genetically engineer someone’s traits? This issue of so-called “designer babies” has been debated for many years, but it is now coming to a head. Designer babies will, very soon, actually be possible.
According to a recent story by the BBC, leading scientists note the “rapid progress” that has been made towards being able to produce genetically-modified humans. They say society should get ready.
The current state of the art uses “genetic editing,” which is performed at the moment a sperm and egg come together. “We use a pair of molecular scissors and a molecular GPS that tells the scissors where to cut,” says Dr. Tony Perry, a cloning pioneer based at the University of Bath in England. Using these tiny little scissors, scientists are not only able to cut out bad stuff, they can insert good stuff from someone else’s DNA. “It is approaching 100% efficiency already,” Dr. Perry told the BBC. “It’s a case of ‘you shoot you score’.”
While it may seem perfectly acceptable to slice away bad genes of, say, cystic fibrosis or cancer, it might be seen as ethically questionable, or just plain wrong, to start monkeying around with traits like eye colour and musical talent in order to concoct a more desirable person. Hugh Whittall, Director of the well-respected Nuffield Council on Bioethics based on London, told the BBC that genetic modification of humans raises questions of social justice — assuming the techniques available only to the rich — and also raises questions of what constitutes someone’s identity, as well as questions of governance and regulation.
For now, designer babies are still in the realm of science fiction. Much research remains to be done on the topics of efficiency, safety, and the spectre of unwanted mutations. It’s hard enough to get the public to embrace genetically modified corn. The last thing anyone wants is start making genetically modified people, only to see the process go awry and create some kind of monster.
Creating genetically modified people is illegal in the UK, according to a spokesman for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. “We keep a watchful eye on scientific developments of this kind,” he told the BBC. “And we welcome discussions about future possible developments.” In order to green-light designer humans, he noted, new legislation would be needed “with all the open and public debate that would entail.”
Bill Rogers is a Toronto lawyer and blogger covering family law and fertility law issues, and a columnist for the Medical Post covering the law of malpractice.