The Scientific Method: 'Emphasising the ethics of designer babies is a way of avoiding the issue of child abuse'

The celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the beautiful double helical structure of DNA were both very interesting and fun. I, for example, ended up dancing "Strip the Willow" in Northumberland with Jim Watson. But one must bear in mind that DNA is really boring compared with the proteins for which the DNA provides the code. DNA is passive, while proteins are the wizards of cell life, and life in general.

During the celebrations there arose, as you would have expected, discussions on the supposedly ethical issues associated with the use of DNA in relation to medical treatments, but mainly in relation to determining what sort of children we might have, or even choose to have. Are there really ethical issues involved? This becomes particularly relevant as the Government is taking a positive approach to genetics and gene therapy in relation to health.

Many of our illnesses, from mental disorders to cancer, are affected by proteins and thus by genes. There are several thousand diseases, including cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, that are caused by errors in single genes. However, most genetic contributions to both health and ill-health involve multiple genes, probably hundreds. Identifying these genes, even though we have the human genome, is very difficult. I am thus nervous that gene therapy may be being oversold by the Government: the claim that it will make an enormous difference to the way it delivers healthcare seems at this stage to be no more than hype. Not only have the relevant genes to be identified, but they have also to be inserted into the right cells and, subsequently, to function properly; as yet, this has proved to be extremely difficult - cystic fibrosis has not yet been cured by gene therapy. But with well-funded research, the long-term future is promising. And the possible ethical issues related to gene therapy seem to have largely disappeared, helped by the Government's assurance that genetic knowledge will not be used to discriminate against individuals in relation, for example, to insurance.

But are there any important ethical issues with respect to designer babies to which we have to address ourselves? If there are, it is hard to see what they are. What possible argument from ethics could be used against prenatal diagnosis of an embryo obtained by IVF, if the diagnosis prevents the implantation of embryos with defective genes? I know that some people object, but there is no evidence that the early embryo is a person. This idea is a relatively recent one, with religious underpinning but with neither argument nor evidence. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church demands that the embryo be respected from the first instance. But what has to be considered in every case is the child and its future wellbeing, and not to do so is totally lacking in respect. Who, for example, is being harmed in all the recent fuss about choosing an embryo with the right genes to help a sibling? Both children will certainly be very well cared for. And it is care of the child that matters.

There are fears that those who have designer babies - choosing children with particular genes that code for hair colour or height, perhaps - will be part of a superclass and increase the inequalities in our society. But will it really make more difference than currently exists between the rich and poor, the former giving their children all sorts of advantages? Emphasising the ethics of designer babies is a way of avoiding the very real problem that about one in 10 of all children suffers some sort of abuse, and thousands are registered as requiring special care because of their dangerous parents. Child neglect is a major problem which has been severely neglected in all the ethical discussions, and it raises a real question as to whether everyone and anyone has the right to bear children.

Lewis Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College, London

Comments