We've seen genetically modified GM (Genetically Modified) corn, sheep, cows and pigs, so why not GM babies?
If that sounds bizarre, it is. But it's also fact. Here's what is happening…
New generation gene sequencing, coupled with in-vitro fertilization allows parents to choose the genetic makeup of their children. Using a new procedure called "Mitochondrial transfer", parents can create genetically superior embryos by buying DNA from a 'superior' mother and then transplanting it to their preferred embryo. 'Designer babies' with 'ideal traits' can be selected based on 'superior' gene sequences.
The first genetically modified healthy baby was born in May 2013.
Further, British scientists are genetically modifying embryos by displacing unacceptable mitochondrial DNA. They 'fix' the embryo by transferring acceptable mitochondrial DNA from another mother.
Between the 1970's to today, we have gone from pre natal screening, to analysing a mother's bloodstream, to revealing the complete genome sequence of her foetus, to modifying and transferring that DNA.
OK, so I'm trying - hard - to be cool and rational about the ethics of sequencing the DNA of a human foetus before birth.
- Who determines what acceptable traits are?
- Where might acceptable DNA be harvested from?
- Will there be a new DNA market? Owned/regulated by….?
- Are we sure this technology really delivers a healthy foetus?
- What is the moral cost of manipulating human life before it is born?
- What next? Sequencing the foetal DNA of everyone? Sequencing an adult's genome is already happening at around US$9,500 a pop. But sequencing foetal DNA is currently cost prohibitive due to a huge amount of repeated sequencing. Moreover, while adults can decide whether to undergo genome sequencing, an unborn child can't consent to knowing its genes.
I ask myself, if I were an expecting mother what choices would I make?
I just don't know. Maybe…..IF I thought there was a high chance of something being wrong, I would rather know. But then would I have the courage to 'tamper? How far would I go? What if I got it wrong? What about the moral and ethical considerations?
This makes me wonder: is this development really commercially viable? While 'Designer babies' may attract some, I think that most would feel a bit put off and/or overwhelmed.
Indeed, having more information about a foetus's traits could present doctors and parents with a deluge of information they aren't able to understand, or act on.
Besides which, how do we know that we are interpreting the genetic findings correctly? Will doctors think a variant associated with diabetes means you are going to get diabetes? Or that the absence of it means you are not. For parents such probabilities might seem like certainties, even if they aren't really. If they bring a child to term with a genetic-based risk, would it cause the parents to treat the child differently?
It seems like our ability to gather DNA data has superseded our ability to understand whether we should be doing it and what to do about it!
Personally, after thinking about this more, no, I couldn't do it. I'm not convinced the procedure is full proof. And I'm scared by the fear of tampering with nature and making the wrong 'designer trait' selection.
What do you think? Please add your comments on the ethical, religious, moral and practical implications.