Pursuit of "Perfect" Babies Raises More Red Flags

Ethically Unsound, Costly and Error-Prone

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LONDON, OCT. 19, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Genetic selection, once discredited after Nazi experiments, is coming back into fashion. The growing popularity of pre-implantation genetic testing was revealed when scientists gathered at a conference in Chicago were told that the number of babies born worldwide using this technique had hit the 1,000 mark, the Associated Press reported Sept. 30.



Counting for more than half of this number are two centers: the St. Barnabas Medical Center in West Orange, New Jersey, and the Chicago Reproductive Genetics Institute, site of the news conference. Pre-implantation screening adds about $2,000 to the cost of in vitro fertilization, which itself can cost from $6,000 to $12,000.

An English group, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, recently warned against allowing parents to select embryos for intelligence or personality traits, BBC reported Oct. 2.

The Nuffield Council, in its recent report "Genetics and Human Behavior: The Ethical Context," noted that the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis in fertility clinics could soon be extended from detecting diseases to the fields of intelligence, behavior or even sexual orientation. A working group set up by the council came out in favor of continuing research to identify genetic factors that could determine such characteristics, but called for safeguards against their misuse.

"Parents are highly motivated to have the best child possible -- some would consider such a selection technique if it were available," said professor Terrie Moffitt, a member of the working group.

Dr. Helen Wallace of the activist group GeneWatch UK warned that behavioral genetics in itself is flawed. "Genes are very poor predictors of behavior because behavior is complex," she explained.

The Nuffield Council report comes in the midst of a series of announcements concerning the use of genetic testing for embryos. On Oct. 12 the London Times reported that a test has been developed by British and American scientists that screens out embryos whose defects may lead to miscarriages. The new test also allows scientists to examine for up to 100 single-gene defects, such as the mutation that causes cystic fibrosis.

The announcement stirred concerns. Paul Tully, of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said he feared that the development took science further down the "slippery slope" toward designer babies. "The scientists may not want that, but the truth is, once the discoveries are made, it is going to be impossible to stop it," Tully said. "You can say at the moment they are just excluding embryos with specific disorders. But soon they will be saying they could do better for couples if only they were allowed to tweak a few genes here and there."

Victoria's program

The pressure to produce perfect babies was evident in a Sept. 27 article in the Herald Sun newspaper of Australia. A new program in the state of Victoria has so far led to "eight perfect babies born in the past year."

Couples with a family history of any of at least 30 diseases are now able to screen their embryos, eliminating those that suffer from defects. Tests are now available for deafness, dwarfism, Alzheimer's disease and various ovarian, bowel, brain, bone and soft tissue cancers. Moreover, doctors have revealed they have just won the right from the state's IVF regulator to test for two genetic causes of breast cancer, the report said.

The first Victorian child conceived using these tests has just celebrated her first birthday. Two more couples are expecting children, and another 44 have entered the program. But Father Norman Ford, director of the Caroline Chisholm Center for Health Ethics, pointed out that it was wrong to leave the defective embryos to die.

Days earlier, the regulating authority for IVF in Victoria gave official approval for a Melbourne couple to screen their embryos for deafness, the Age newspaper reported Sept. 22. Both parents carry a defective gene, which means there is a one-in-four chance of their having a deaf baby.

The chief executive of the Infertility Treatment Authority, Helen Szoke, rejected criticisms that the go-ahead could lead to designer babies, saying her organization was bound to allow screening in serious medical cases.

The decision drew opposition from Catholic ethicist Nicholas Tonti-Filipini, who warned that it paved the way for the genetic elimination of unwanted characteristics -- another way of saying the killing of less-than-perfect unborn children. "It opens the way for all kinds to be determined genetically -- increases the likelihood of screening for homosexuality, or for choosing children for physical prowess, tallness, athleticism, or to avoid hyperactivity," he said.

Sex selection

Another area of controversy is the use of pre-implantation diagnosis to select the sex of future babies. The Los Angeles Times reported July 23 on the case of one woman, who after three baby boys, went to a clinic where five embryos were produced. The three males embryos were frozen, and the two female ones implanted.

Fertility techniques in the United States face few legal limitations. The Tyler Medical clinic used by the woman is run by Dr. Jaroslav Marik, who believes embryo screening can be used to nearly eliminate diseases such as cystic fibrosis. But he also offers it to patients who have no medical need to select a child's gender. "What is medical need?" he asked. "Isn't the right to happiness and health a part of that?" Marik said about 70 of his patients have screened embryos since 2001, including 15 who sought a boy or girl for non-medical purposes.

But sex selection is "morally reprehensible," commented Dr. Robert Anderson of the Southern California Center for Reproductive Medicine in Newport Beach. "Most Americans, no matter where they come down on the question of where life begins, would find something morally objectionable about creating embryos and then discarding some simply because of their sex."

Sex selection is not the only controversial use of genetic tests, noted the Wall Street Journal last July 25. Screening has also been used to find an embryo with matching bone marrow to donate to a sick sibling -- meaning that otherwise healthy embryos had to be discarded.

The Journal cited data from a number of clinics showing a sharp increase in the use of pre-implantation diagnosis, in spite of the high costs. Moreover, such diagnosis is error-prone, the newspaper noted. Detecting genetic abnormalities can carry a 10% rate of error, which means that the pre-implantation test is not as accurate as amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling, the two most common prenatal tests. This is because testing before implantation uses a single cell from the embryo so there is only a small amount of chromosomal and genetic material to examine.

As Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life), No. 14, the techniques of artificial reproduction "which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life." Human life often is reduced "to the level of simple 'biological matter' to be freely disposed of," he wrote. Unless this warning is heeded, many innocent lives will be sacrificed in the quest to produce "perfect babies."