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Designer Babies: A New Era Approaches

Designer Babies: A New Era Approaches

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Picture this:

A massive, glittering catwalk in the middle of a big-city studio.

The top names in fashion, magazine publishing, and popular culture surrounding it as flashbulbs blaze.

The fall show is just minutes away from beginning. Soon, the latest trends will be set. The glitterati's mouths hang agape in breathless anticipation. The lights dim, a hush falls, and from behind the curtain emerge…

…babies.

Dozens of them, each one unique; each being held by an apprentice "fashion handler" and paraded in front of the gawkers like a pristine golden egg, doing the obligatory turn at the end of the catwalk, and making way for the next. Welcome to this season's Designer Baby Week right here in the Designer Baby District, where the latest in genetic manipulation can give you the child you want rather than one you have to settle for! The sex of your child… you decide! Eye color, hair color, height – you name it! Who says the scientific revolution doesn't extend to the world of fashion?

Thankfully, the above scenario is completely fictional. It has not happened, and many years will pass before it even becomes technologically possible. But that it's not impossible is becoming clearer every day.

What is now called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, or PGD, may ultimately pave the way for parents being able to pick and choose significant traits of their offspring. PGD is currently used to identify embryonic abnormalities before in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The process searches for specific genes that may carry inherited diseases. This ultimately makes it possible to transfer healthier embryos to the uterus during IVF. PGD, also known as genetic screening, can increase the likelihood of bringing an IVF pregnancy to full term, as well as ensuring the transfer of embryos that are free of what will become debilitating genetic conditions, including Huntington's disease, Down's syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia.

That all sounds wonderful, and indeed it is. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with genetic screening in order to ensure the health of a pregnancy, and ultimately the child. But it may not stop there. In fact, the future development of this technology may end up being one of the definitive social issues of the new era. And here's why:

In a few years, you may be able to control virtually every aspect of your child before he or she is even born by manipulating natural genetic traits to your specifications. Eye color, hair color, height, skin tone, and even, possibly, sexual orientation.

Currently, the PGD process works like this: during in vitro fertilization, doctors can test cells from embryos for signs of genetic disorders before implanting them in the uterus. Embryos that contain cells exhibiting no genetic abnormalities can then be chosen for implantation. This process can also be used to determine gender, making it possible for parents to decide whether their new baby will be a boy or a girl. Even more interesting is what can happen once future changes and advances in the system currently being used are ready to be implemented. More overt gene manipulation is only a step beyond PGD. Instead of just taking away embryos with genes that could ultimately harm a child, it might soon be possible to add new genes to cells in order to ensure the child has specific traits. These traits could be chosen by parents, in a process rather like flipping through a catalogue to select the perfect model.

So many levels of debate are destined to spring from this technology that one may have trouble knowing where to start. Obviously, PGD is already helping many parents give birth to healthy babies without the worry of passing on harmful and debilitating genetic diseases. And the ability to start manipulating genetic code to custom-design a child's biological features is probably decades away. But the process is already being tested on animals, and the more we begin to understand the human genome and how it works, the more hurdles we'll overcome in trying to alter it any way we see fit.

The nobility behind the current technology can lead down what some may conclude is a dangerous path. We're talking about manufacturing babies. What effects might this have on individuality? How much of our individuality stems from what we're born with, and what we learn once we're here? Some big questions are coming. Nature vs. nurture. Genetic predisposition of gender and sexuality. Will one "model" be considered "superior" to others, or to those who were born without genetic tinkering? Does custom-tailoring a potential human being to meet the parents’ personal preferences minimize his or her own individuality, ensuring he or she will look, think, and be a certain way?

The fact of the matter is, this has only just begun, and the real debate is yet to come. While scientific progress can be a wonderful thing, great scientists know the importance of having rigorous debate early on. And they tread carefully in order to avoid future scenarios like, say … baby fashion parades.

Where Designer Babies are concerned, one may want to consider the words of a famous author whose work anticipated some of these issues, and whose fundamental questions about the line between man and nature can arguably draw parallels:

"It is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason."

This from a woman who seemed to have a very clear understanding of individuality, as well as the sometimes tragic consequences that can emerge when humankind tries to impose its will on nature. She may have been 200 years ahead of her time.

Her name was Mary Shelley.

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