'Designer Kids' & 'Savior Siblings': Gosh, children are useful!

E. Christian Brugger
© Culture of Life Foundation 2009
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

"By examining the genetic makeup of embryos, we can guarantee your next child will be the sex of your choice." (Jeffrey Steinberg, The Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles, from website1.)

"Britain is now admired internationally for its policies and practice in reproductive biology…[It gives] legal sanction to mixed animal-human embryos, preimplantation genetic diagnosis and saviour siblings…China has started to implement permissive national guidelines; the Chinese attitude towards the embryo is not burdened with Christian views." (Ruth Deech, former chair of Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority2)

"There could be no better reason for having a child than to save the life of another child." (John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, U.K., on 'savior siblings'3).

"The list of children killed by their parents' superstition or wilful ignorance is a long one… Nearly 150 years after Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution, we have yet to grasp one of its most unsettling implications: having diseased children is as natural as having healthy ones. Thanks to technology, we are no longer entirely at the mercy of this callous process. Rather than regarding this ability with suspicion, we should be celebrating it and encouraging its use." (Michael Le Page, biology features editor, New Scientist4).

Recall the 1997 film Gattaca starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. In Gattica's world children are the product of bioengineering. Parents can choose to make a boy or a girl; they can be assured the child is free of hundreds of genetic imperfections, won't struggle with obesity or depression, belongs to a desired IQ class, has blond hair, blue eyes, and a mild and agreeable personality type: "we have enough imperfections built in already," says a doctor. Gattaca's world belongs to the genetically strong - the 'perfect' - a world full of privilege and opportunity. But the imperfect, conceived by their parents 'naturally', they're fit for little more than cleaning toilets. To twist saintly words on their head, 'We must increase and they must decrease.'5

In the past few years a procedure called "PGD" (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) has been increasingly used by fertility clinics for achieving IVF pregnancies. A few days after fertilization, when a human embryo is approximately at the eight cell stage of development, a technician inserts a tiny needle into the body of the embryo and removes one or two cells, called blastomeres. By performing tests on the cell's DNA genetic information can be gained. For example, the embryo's sex. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, 46 in all. Of these, two are referred to as sex chromosomes, one called X and the other called Y (the additional 44 are called autosomes). Normally, two X chromosomes biologically codes for a female, an X and a Y for a male. Fertility technicians looking at the sex chromosomes in the nucleus of the blastomere can determine the sex of the embryo with a high degree of accuracy. A couple then can choose whether to transplant the embryo for purposes of bringing a live baby to birth or discard the embryo as undesirable. As one leading U.S. fertility clinic says on its website: "Embryos determined to be…of the wrong gender are discarded"6.

PGD can also be used to test for diseases caused by the possession of an abnormal number of chromosomes, or chromosomal aneuploidy (e.g. Down's Syndrome, Trisomy 13, Trisomy 18, Turner's Syndrome). It can also be used to screen for single gene defects, i.e., particular genetic mutations known to be associated with specific diseases (e.g. Cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, Thalassemia). Embryos that test positive for any of dozens of disorders are selected out and discarded. This form of the eugenic screening is presently a routine part of the practice of IVF. As the sophistication of genetic tests increases, an increasing number of embryos with disabilities will be screened out and destroyed.

Although presently rare, PGD can also be used to test for positive traits. Last winter the Wall Street Journal reported that fertility clinics in the U.S. are beginning to offer to clients the option of selecting the physical traits of their children (so-called "designer children")7. Though some IVF specialists are averse to using PGD for this, others see no problems with the technique: "This is cosmetic medicine," said the director of one prominent fertility clinic in California: "Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it." The more detailed the request for certain traits, the more embryos that will test negative and hence the more that will be discarded.

When combined with a test called tissue typing, PGD not only allows the selecting of embryos free of serious genetic disease, but can also be used to select embryos that register a perfect tissue match with a sibling suffering from an existing disease. The "savior sibling" embryo is implanted in a womb and gestated till birth. His or her umbilical cord blood, chocked full of stem cells, is then harvested and transplanted into the suffering sibling. If this form of adult stem cell therapy is ineffective, then the possibility exists down the road for other types of transplants from the savior sibling (e.g., a bone marrow transplant into a sibling suffering from Leukemia, or non-vital organ transplantation for siblings suffering from some degenerative organ disease).

Presently, tests seem to show that PGD does not significantly aeffect an embryo's ability to implant and gestate. Research however on whether it causes long-term harm to persons has not been gathered. So it's a gamble even for the one's lucky enough to survive quality control, a gamble that many are willing to take.

The differences between the eugenicists of Gattaca's world and the increasing number of eugenicists in our own are less than you might think. The 'benevolent' motives are similar: to eliminate illness, heal suffering, and satisfy the desires of parents. The means both use are alike: the commodification of human beings and the elimination of the weak. And the moral sentiments built up are identical: an intolerance with the imperfections of human nature and impatience with all limitations on the liberty to manipulate nascent human life8; their former whispers are becoming shouts (as C. S. Lewis writes in the Abolition of Man): "Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that"9. In fact, the differences are only a matter of unintended side-effects. In Gattaca's world the intolerance for imperfection has given rise to systemic discrimination against those who are imperfect, those, that is, who survive long enough for us to look them in the eyes. So what's the eugenicist's solution for avoiding the slippery slope? Are you sitting down? Government regulation! "Tough regulation is the solution," writes one sanguine commentator10. Miserere nobis.


1 http://www.gender-selection.com/?gclid=COnFytWdspsCFSgYagodcyfqPw [Back]

2 Ruth Deech, "30 years: from IVF to stem cells," Nature 454, 280-281 (17 July 2008) doi:10.1038/454280a. [Back]

3 Quoted in Andy Coghlan,"'Saviour sibling' babies get green light," New Scientist, 13:28 (July 22, 2004); available at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn6195-saviour-sibling-babies-get-green-light.html [Back]

4 Michael Le Page, "Fears over 'designer' babies leave children suffering," New Scientist, issue 2700 (March 21, 2009) http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20127006.600-fears-over-designer-babies-leave-children-suffering.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=online-news [Back]

5 For the Gattaca trailer, see http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue05/reviews/gattaca.htm [Back]

6 http://genderselectioncenter.com/pgd.html [Back]

7 Gautam Naik, "A Baby, Please. Blond, Freckles - Hold the Colic: Laboratory Techniques That Screen for Diseases in Embryos Are Now Being Offered to Create Designer Children," Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009; available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123439771603075099.html [Back]

8 An extreme example is the lively conversation underway in the U.K. as to whether deaf parents should have the right to bio-engineer deaf children for the sake of family homogeneity; see Sarah-Kate Templeton, "Deaf demand right to designer deaf children," The Sunday (London) Times Online, December 23, 2007; available at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article3087367.ece [Back]

9 Macmillan edition, 1947, p. 63 [Back]

10 R. Prasad, "Saviour siblings: commodity or boon?" The Hindu, Online edition of India's National Newspaper, Thursday, Jul 29, 2004; available at http://www.hindu.com/seta/2004/07/29/stories/2004072900151600.htm [Back]