February 25, 2014

Where Do 'Designer Babies' Come From?

So there are FDA hearings on an experimental gene splicing technique that involves replacing defective mitochondria in a woman's egg with healthy mitochondria from another woman, either before or after fertilization.

And the fear surrounding this process is, as it always is, of 'Designer Babies': "a therapy that critics say is an ethical minefield and could lead to the creation of designer babies."

Can we step back and look at this phrase for a minute? Designer babies? Where does it come from? What does it even mean?

According to the NY Times, the paper of record for designer trends, it started in France. And like hemlines and shoulder pads, the meaning of the term changes over time. The first appearance of "designer babies" in the paper was 20 years ago, in January 1994, in a story about France's rightist government considering a ban on embryo implantations in post-menopausal women.

The paper quoted Social Affairs Minister Simone Veil, who said the law would require "a judge give approval in every case of artificial insemination to create an embryo that has no genetic link to the parents. 'There have to be certain rules, because we could otherwise have some really bizarre situations,' she said." And what counted as "bizarre" in 1994?

Since Christmas, the debate in Europe about so-called designer babies has been fed by a report that a British fertility clinic might implant a white woman's egg into a black woman.
Other potential pregnancy prospects France's conservative politicians didn't like: lesbians and widows.

The next appearance is in 1997, in a review of a Discovery channel series, "Making Babies: Genetically Correct," which looks at two families facing terminal genetic illnesses who screened their embryos before implantation. "And both cases, as the narrator points out, may foreshadow 'designer babies.'"

1997 was also the year Gattaca came out. But it didn't get namechecked in the designer baby timeline until 2000, after successful mammal cloning had taken place, and genetic engineering was quickly becoming a real possibility.

As a phrase, and a concept, designer babies is designed to sound suspect, a critical and frivolous counterweight to genetic research. Yet designer babies are always an ominous ethical crisis looming somewhere down the road, but not today; they're a risk associated not with our current genetic and fertility tools, but with those to come. It's a warning against going "too far," where "too far" is usually equated with choosing an embryo's gender, eye color, and height.

But gender selection is already a norm, or at least a viable IVF option. And bans on gender-detecting ultrasounds haven't stopped determined parents in India from designing girl fetuses out of existence. Designer babies are here and now, and they're a reflection of our current values and priorities. Maybe let's deal with that.

Fear of 'Designer Babies' as F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Procedure [nyt]

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