'Designer babies' ruled out in UK: Nicholas Timmins examines the latest twists in the medical and ethical debate over 'designer children'

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The Independent Online
FERTILITY clinics in Britain would be banned from helping a black couple have a white child for purely social reasons, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said yesterday.

But the government-appointed authority, which regulates fertility treatments, could allow the implantation of a white egg into the woman of an all-black couple if no black egg was available, said Flora Goldhill, its chief executive. Its stance - which medical ethicists said illustrated the dilemmas surrounding 'designer babies' - came as doctors at the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge confirmed they were considering giving a white egg to a black mother.

Their disclosure followed that of doctors in Rome, where a black woman has given birth to a white baby. The 'third world' woman married to a white European was given a white egg this year after telling doctors a mixed-race child would face racial discrimination.

Peter Brinsden, Bourn Hall's medical director, said that a white egg was likely to be offered to a black woman whose partner was of mixed race, chiefly because of the shortage of black donors.

The child would be of mixed race whether a black or white egg was used. The couple had been counselled, and 'since the availability of black donors is very, very scarce then the couple are more than happy to consider a white donor.

'The mother has been waiting more than four years and is approaching her mid-40s. She does not have any time to waste. No decision has been taken, but we will probably go ahead.'

Ms Goldhill said the authority was opposed to any form of 'simple social engineering' to produce 'tailor-made' babies.

In the Bourn Hall case, however, 'the couple are saying, 'we want a baby, please help us', not 'we want a baby to this specification.' '

If a black couple wanted a baby and only a white donor egg was available, 'I think what we would expect to happen is something similar to adoption'.

Dr Brinsden said he supported the Italian doctors' decision. 'We would seriously think about it because the husband was pure white and the woman pure black. There are merits in having an all-white or all-black child. In my view it is not right, but it is a fact of life that being half-caste is not as easy as being white or black, and I believe this couple may well have been acting in the child's interests.'

He would be against providing a white child to an all-black couple, or vice-versa. 'Our brief from the embryology authority is to match the children as closely as possible to the parents unless there are exceptional circumstances, which in the current case we think there are.'

Dr Brinsden said that he had rejected a request from a Pakistani couple seeking a blond-haired, blue- eyed child, and from a Chinese couple who wanted a European embryo to provide a round-eyed child.

Dr Stuart Horner, chairman of the British Medical Association's ethics committee, said: 'We are talking about selecting for race today, we know that the technology will exist within a matter of months for people to be able to choose the sex of a baby and it will not be long before we are able to select negatively to avoid a child with cystic fibrosis and other heritable diseases. Where do we draw the line?'