Ethicists Decry 'Designer Baby' Trend in US, UK

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - Following disclosures that an American couple created a test-tube baby to act as a donor for his sister, at least two British couples this week expressed interest publicly in using the same technique to genetically select a baby.

Lisa and Jack Nash of Colorado used genetic screening to select one of a dozen embryos, to create a child with the exact type of cells needed to help six-year-old Molly, who suffers from a bone marrow deficiency called Fanconi anemia.

Under a procedure called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), doctors at the Fairview-University Medical Center in Minneapolis chose an embryo not carrying the faulty Fanconi anemia gene, and implanted it into Lisa Nash's womb.

Baby Adam was born in August, and Molly last week received stem cells from his umbilical cord. A bone marrow transplant is expected to take place at an appropriate point in the future.

Children with the disease invariably die before the age of ten. A bone marrow transplant from a perfectly-matched sibling is the only known effective treatment.

The case has caused controversy here, with ethicists and pro-life advocates questioning whether it constituted the creation of a child as a "medical commodity" rather than a child for its own sake. In addition, ethicists condemn the subsequent destruction of the remaining embryos.

Some commentators said the case marked the "slippery slope" towards genetically-modified babies - choosing children for such traits as intelligence and athleticism - even though currently available technology makes such trait selection impossible at this stage.

The editor of a publication called Gen Ethics News, David King, called the Nash case creating "a child to order."

"We are getting into a designer babies era, what I would call a eugenics area ... to picking and choosing our children," he said.

At least two leading British fertility experts have expressed interest for the procedure used in the Nash case.

Regulations in Britain permits PGD only under strict conditions, to prevent the birth of a babies with serious genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis. It has been used in the conception of just 20 healthy babies over the past 10 years.

PGD cannot be used for "social, physical or psychological reasons," but only in cases where there is a pressing medical reason, according to the UK regulatory body, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

But two couples are hoping to challenge this.

Alan and Louise Masterton, from Scotland, who lost their only daughter in a bonfire accident last year, want to use the technique to ensure they have another girl.

Having tried for 15 years to have a girl, they then lost their only daughter at the age of three. They have four sons, but say the family feels incomplete with the "female dimension" missing.

The Mastertons said they will use recently-introduced human rights legislation to fight the case if necessary, after being informed by the HFEA that their wish did not meet the laid-down requirements.

The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland opposes the move, and the pro-life group Life condemned it as "simple eugenics."

While expressing sympathy for the family's situation, Life said in a statement that "children are gifts - not 'items' to be ordered up according to parents' specifications...

"If parents are allowed to say what sex their next baby is to be they also have the 'right' to 'wrong-sex' abortion - the right to get rid of a baby whose gender is not what they wanted. In most cases this will mean getting rid of little girls."

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children described PGD and the subsequent rejection of embryos as "fatal discrimination, which should not be tolerated in any civilized society."

On the other hand, the leader of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, Bishop Richard Holloway, said the HFEA should make allowances for "exceptional circumstances," and said he thought the Mastertons' case probably fell into that category.

An English couple, Ellen and Damien Phillipson, also want permission to use PGD, for the same reason as the Nashes in America. Their four-year-old daughter, Simone, also suffers from Fanconi anemia.

"Hearing about the birth of Adam Nash was wonderful," Ellen Phillipson was quoted Friday as saying. "You can't argue against genetic selection unless you are in our position. You don't know what it's like - 99.9 per cent of parents would do anything to save their children."

Commenting on the Nash case, Life spokesman Kevin Male said: "This is yet another example of how the IVF [in-vitro fertilization] industry has corrupted us. Very slowly, the boundaries of what society is finding acceptable are being pushed outwards.

"Each case has what seems on the surface, a logical reason for what is being done. But with each case, we are losing fundamental standards that hold society together."

In the first public consultation process of its kind in the world, the HFEA is asking "whether and how PGD should be used to help couples with serious genetic disorders in their families have healthy children."

When the process began, HFEA chairman Ruth Deech made it clear it would be "unacceptable to allow PGD to be used to test for any social, physical or psychological characteristics, or any other conditions that are not associated with serious, often life threatening, medical disorders."

Following the consultation, further guidance on PGD will be issued next year.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow