Valued child or designer accessory? Making babies the postmodern way…

Postmodern Babies

The hotly debated issue of “designer babies” is back in the news.  A patent has just been issued to 23andMe for “gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations.”


This California-based company will use their newly patented Family Traits Inheritor Calculator to analyze saliva samples from prospective parents.  For $99.00, the company will utilize “computer and genetic algorithms” to determine what genetic traits and diseases parents might pass to their children.


In an article entitled “I prefer a child with … ”, the journal Genetics in Medicine summarizes the science and the controversy surrounding this new patent.


Taken out of “patentese,” what 23andMe is claiming is a method by which prospective donors of ova and/or sperm may be selected so as to increase the likelihood of producing a human baby with characteristics desired by the prospective parents, the selection being based on a computerized comparison of the genotypic data of the egg provider with that of the sperm provider. The phenotypic characteristics that may be on the users’ (e.g., parents’) “shopping list” can include both disease-related and non–disease-related traits, such as height, eye color, muscle development, personality characteristics, and risks of developing age-related macular degeneration or certain types of cancer.


The Genetics in Medicine summary continues with what looks like an opportunity to start a shopping list for creating a designer baby.  But they do add a qualifier.


Figure 4 of the patent application lists the following alternative choices: “I prefer a child with”: “longest expected life span”/“least expected life cost of health care”/“least expected cumulative duration of hospitalization.” Figure 6 visualizes a choice between the “offspring’s possible traits” of “0% likely endurance athlete” and “100% likely sprinter.”  Of note, sex is also mentioned as an example of the phenotypic characteristics. 23andMe’s claim is extremely broad insofar as it concerns “selection” for any phenotypic trait, which of course includes polygenetic traits that might be more than a bit difficult to select for. …


The caveat:


[I]n 23andMe’s favor, we must point out that what is claimed is not a cast-iron, fool-proof method guaranteeing that the eventual child will have all the phenotypic traits on the parents’ shopping list, an impossible task, but merely a method of improving the chances that the baby has the “right” characteristics.


Dr. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the non-profit Center for Genetics and Society, points out a significant but overlooked part of the 23andMe controversy—“would-be parents could specify ‘phenotypes of interest in the hypothetical offspring,’ and receive a report on the probabilities that using gametes from various providers would produce those traits.”  Since the traits calculator would allow the screening of gametes from a variety of donors in search for the combination that would probably produce a child with the desired characteristics, it’s hard to miss the eugenic dimensions of what the traits calculator would do.  Some have called this sort of thing “techno-eugenics.”  I would describe it in more crude but also accurate terms—it’s what the farmers call “selective breeding.”


It’s important to note that methods of improving the chances of having a baby with “the ‘right’ characteristics” are already widely used.  Selective abortion enables parents to abort babies with genetic diseases, such as Down syndrome.  In conjunction with ultrasound, sex selection abortion is widely practiced in countries like India and China to abort female fetuses—a practice often described as the “war on girls.”


Additionally, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) has been used for over ten years to screen embryos.  The developers of PGD argued that it would be used to screen for extreme fetal abnormalities.  But it was soon used to help parents select the sex of the child to be born.  It’s also being used to help parents select embryos that will have a handicap, such as dwarfism or deafness.


At time of the patent filing, 23andMe indicated that they had considered making their services available to fertility clinics.  Now, they say this is no longer one of their goals.  But if we’ve learned anything from the history of PGD, the pressures to follow through on this new-found reticence will be enormous.  Should a wealthy Chinese businessman or Sir Elton John or Nicole Kidman show up at the door looking for another baby, 23andMe would be hard pressed to say “no.”


A quick perusal of two news articles will explain why!


·         Rich Chinese hire American surrogate mothers for up to $120,000 a child


Wealthy Chinese are hiring American women to serve as surrogates for their children, creating a small but growing business in $120,000 “designer” American babies for China’s elite. …


“You can basically make a designer baby nowadays,” says Jennifer Garcia, case coordinator at Extraordinary Conceptions, a Carlsbad, California-based agency where 40 per cent of clients are Chinese.


·         Surrogate babies, Hollywood style


Valued children or designer accessories? As Elton John and Nicole Kidman have children by surrogates …


[I]n America, and especially, in Hollywood, surrogates are paid well. The rate, including brokers’ fees is about $80,000, the price varying according to whether the surrogate is using her own egg, an embryo created in-vitro or twins. …


Anyone with enough cash can engage their services and celebrities seem particularly unfazed by outsourcing their reproduction. Advances in medicine have made all sorts of complex egg-sperm-embryo permutations possible, but Hollywood has always fostered a pioneering attitude to parenthood. …


To set all of this in context, it’s important to see it in the historical framework provided by Brent Waters in the previous post, “From Providence to progress to process.”  Transforming reproduction into a project for producing “designer babies” is at its roots a project for transforming what it means to be human.  To once again quote Dr. Waters on the historical transition from progress to process,


[W]hat recourse was available once the certitudes of religion and reason had withered, and the emotive symbols of providence and progress had been smashed? There was still the will, and unlike previous generations humans now possessed the technological power to assert it more effectively.


[I]f humans were to carve out for themselves a hospitable niche within a purposeless and directionless history, that [technological] power would be needed not only to master nature, but also to master, if not transform, human nature.


[For postmoderns,] There are no given borders or boundaries that determine what it means to be human.  That determination lies squarely and solely in what humans will themselves to be.  The mastery of nature and human nature will only be complete, only be perfected, though human self-transformation.  But transformation into what?




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