Public to be consulted on 'designer baby' ethics

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The Independent Online

People are being asked to voice their opinion on "designer babies" and other developments involving the genetic testing of human embryos in a nationwide poll of views.

People are being asked to voice their opinion on "designer babies" and other developments involving the genetic testing of human embryos in a nationwide poll of views.

A consultation document published yesterday by the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) asks the public to raise its concerns when it comes to selecting a baby's sex or improving its genetic make-up.

The organisation wants to gather opinions before it formulates its own advice to ministers at the end of next year on how to respond to new developments in genetics and reproduction.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, who chairs the HGC, said it was a real opportunity for people to voice their views and arguments before the commission arrived at its own recommendations. "While developments in genetics mean we can know more now that ever before about ourselves and the genetic make-up of our potential children, many are concerned about the impact of this on society, and on the meaning and value we give human life," Lady Kennedy said. "At the heart of the issue is where do we, as a society, strike a balance between individual needs and wants, and the wide social consequences of the decisions we make."

Two of the most contentious issues concern the use of genetic testing to select embryos for in vitro fertilisation, and the possibility of enchancing embryos by adding or deleting genes - a technique frequently used in animals but which is illegal in Britain on human embryos.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is currently reviewing its licensing rules on so-called "saviour siblings", when an embryo without a genetic disorder is selected to match that of a brother or sister with a serious inherited disease that can be treated by a tissue transplant.

The HGC will also consider the prospect of genetic enhancement by selecting embryos for traits that could improve beauty, intelligence or sporting prowess, although it considers the prospect unlikely in the immediate future.

"As the HGC has heard, at the moment scientists know almost nothing about which genes might be involved in making up these characteristics, and the role of the environment," the consultation document says. "Even if scientists did know this, an additional problem with selection ... would be that an impossibly large number of embryos would be required to find one with the desired make-up," it says.

However, advances in human genetics mean that parents will know an increasing amount about the genetic make-up of their unborn children and it is up to society to decide how this information can be used, the HGC said.

The commission has established a panel of about 100 people with a direct experience of living with a genetic disease to contribute to the debate.

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