IVF is inexorably opening the door to a future where parents can choose desirable traits in their children
FOR countless couples who want to have children but cannot conceive naturally, the birth of Connor Levy is excellent news. Connor is the first child to be born as a result of a new IVF procedure that can screen out genetically abnormal embryos before implantation.
The technique is designed to minimise the chances of a failed pregnancy, still a major issue with IVF. But it also brings the prospect of designer babies one small step closer (see "First baby born after full genetic screening of embryos").
It is proof that an embryo's genome could be sequenced before implantation, which opens the door to a Gattaca-like future in which parents can select desirable genetic traits for their children.
That is a daunting prospect, but we are not there yet. Until it becomes possible to genetically engineer embryos rather than just select them, true designer babies remain in the realm of science fiction.
As it stands, IVF offers very limited opportunities to select desirable traits. Each cycle only produces a few embryos, all of which carry their parents' genes. Sequencing is expensive, and in any case our understanding of human genetics is still too rudimentary to read a genome and predict what the person will be like. Given all that, it is unlikely that couples using IVF will start selecting embryos for anything other than legitimate medical reasons. At least not yet.
But that is no reason for complacency. Other forms of IVF already make genetic screening ? though not full sequencing ? possible. And where it is legal, there is evidence that parents are willing to play designer. Sex selection has been documented in the US, and some disabled parents have chosen to have a child who shares their disability.
Slippery slope arguments are treacherous, but may be valid in this case. As techniques improve and the cost comes down, the pressure will inevitably grow to expand the use of sequencing ? or even gene therapy ? to improve the chances of a successful pregnancy and minimise the odds of having a poorly child. Those are laudable, humanitarian goals. But they will create the opportunity to go further. We must think hard before doing so.
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