Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis: Will We Design Our Babies Like We Design Our Miis?

On the heels of news that fetal sex selection is occurring in America comes a study on what kinds of prenatal genetic manipulation Americans are okay with.

The blog Hit & Run quotes h+ magazine, as follows:

A January 2009 study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center found that an overwhelming 75% of parents would be in favor of trait selection using PGD [pre-implantation genetic diagnosis] – as long as that trait is the absence of mental retardation. A further 54% would screen their embryos for deafness, 56% for blindness, 52% for a propensity to heart disease, and 51% for a propensity to cancer. Only 10% would be willing to select embryos for better athletic ability, and 12.6% would select for greater intelligence. 52.2% of respondents said that there were no conditions for which genetic testing should never be offered, indicating widespread support for [pre-implantation genetic diagnosis]-as long as it's for averting disease and not engineering human enhancement.

Despite these figures, the Fertility Institutes announced in February that it would start allowing parents to choose their babies' hair and eye color. Institutes director Jeff Steinberg said, "I would not say this is a dangerous road. It's an uncharted road." h+ quotes a few advocates of Steinberg's position, including George Dvorsky, who says, "What we're talking about here is endowing our children with all the tools we can give them so that they may live an enriched, open-ended and fulfilling life. By denying them these benefits we are closing doors and potentially reducing the quality of their lives." Most people, though, seem to agree with geneticist William Kearns, who says, "My goal is to screen embryos to help couples have healthy babies free of genetic diseases. Traits are not diseases."

But is the distinction so easy to maintain? What about something like autism, which some advocates say is more trait than disease? It seems cruel to deny parents the right to prevent serious illnesses in their children, but we do need to codify what constitutes a serious illness — and we need to consider the fact that pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, as a component of in vitro fertilization, is currently only available to those with money. What will happen to research into treatments for genetic diseases if these diseases become exclusively a problem of the poor? These are all important issues, which Katherine Mangu-Ward of Hit & Run chooses to wrap up with these lines:

Of course, people are also getting used to selecting traits like eye color on their Miis. It's only a matter of time before they come around on doing the same for flesh and blood babies.

Thanks for the insight! I'm off to get myself implanted with a two-dimensional child with a huge head and spherical hands. (I'm making his shirt green!)

Let's Make A Baby [Hit & Run]
The Great Designer Baby Controversy Of '09 [h+]