`Designer babies' fear in genetic screenings

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWO HUNDRED women being treated for infertility have had their embryos screened for genetic defects, and 20 children have already been born in what critics warn could be the first step towards designer babies.

The figures were revealed yesterday by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in a consultation document seeking the public's views on whether genetic screening of embryos should be extended.

The controversial technique, called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, involves selecting embryos that are then checked for genetic defects. Only those embryos free of defects are replanted in the womb. All the 200 women on whom the technique has so far been tried had serious genetic disorders in their families, including cystic fibrosis, Huntington's chorea and Taysach's disease, which they wished to avoid passing on to their children.

However, pro-life groups say scientists are "meddling in human evolution" and that the technique could be used to select qualities such as intelligence and sporting prowess. They fear advances in the technique will trigger growing demands from parents seeking the "perfect" child.

Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment of Reproductive Ethics, said: "This is designing. You are saying we don't like this defect or that defect. It is a slippery slope. Even in pre-natal screening what used to be considered a minor defect like a harelip is now a reason for an abortion. Will we have a dyslexia gene that people will say they don't want? If you offer people choices they will inevitably say they want something better."

The embryology authority banned sex selection for social reasons in 1993 but allowed it for medical reasons in couples with sex-linked diseases such as haemophilia and Duch-enne's muscular dystrophy, which occur only in boys. Now it is seeking views on how tightly the use of the technique should be regulated for detecting other characteristics,

The authority said: "This isn't about the creation of designer babies but it is about helping families avoid passing on serious genetic diseases to their children. They would not be allowed to select embryos for social, physical or psychological characteristics."

For parents who had had repeated miscarriages or seen previous children die, screening offered hope but it had so far been used in only a handful of fatal disorders caused by single genes. The consultation paper says demand could grow from couples wanting to test for common disorders, but selecting embryos for physical characteristics or intelligence is "unlikely to be a realistic possibility" because their genetic basis is not understood.

Professor Lord Winston, head of the IVF clinic at Hammersmith Hospital, west London, which pioneered pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and is one of only four in the country permitted by the embryology authority to do it, said: "The technique has been widely hyped. It is revolutionary but it is of limited value although in families where it has value it should be used."

He rejected claims that it could be the start of a slippery slope towards the quality control of children.