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The Big Question

Q: How Close Are We to Producing the "Designer Baby"?

Kathy Hudson, PhD, is director of the newly launched Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The center, part of the Johns Hopkins Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute, will focus on ethical and public policy issues related to genetics and human reproduction.
Photo by Jennifer Bishop

A: "Not very. The media frequently portray 'designer babies,' whose genes have been reengineered to achieve extraordinary intelligence, athletic ability, or beauty. But this is largely science fiction. The ability to safely and efficiently modify human genes in a heritable way is still many years off and the genetics of complex human traits-- such as intelligence and behavior--will never be amenable to precise, single-step, wholesale modification. That's because we are more than the sum of our genes. We know, for example, that diabetes tends to run in families; already scientists have identified genes that contribute to the risk for diabetes. But we also know that diet, exercise, and other environmental factors influence whether a person develops the illness. The same is true for intelligence. There is no single 'smart gene.'

"That said, there are currently a limited number of genetic tests available for reproductive use. Families are already making embryos through in vitro fertilization and using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (genetic testing on the early embryo) to choose embryos that have specific genetic characteristics. This testing has been done to select embryos that don't have gene mutations for diseases that always kill in the first days of life. But more and more, this testing is being done to choose embryos that don't have gene mutations that cause diseases in adulthood--or even those mutations that just increase the risk of disease in adulthood.

"The number of tests available is growing rapidly and there just aren't any rules--or even much clear thinking-- about which tests should or should not be used in reproduction and why.

"How will we as individuals, as families, and as a society deal with the unprecedented ability to select a desired constellation of genetic attributes for our children? Will reproductive genetic technologies only be available to the wealthy? Are decisions about reproductive genetics intrinsically individual, or is government involvement both warranted and necessary?

"Technological advances hold the promise of helping parents have the baby of their dreams. Ultimately, however, we will be forced to ask ourselves: Will our ability to change (or 'improve') our heredity alter our humanity?"

Return to June 2002 Table of Contents

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