Who are these people shopping for high-end embryos?

Inflammatory headline alert!

We all know that scientific advancements can bring up ethical dilemmas but I’m a bit skeptical of Duke University geneticist, David Goldstein’s conclusion that parents will be clamoring for “designer babies” as soon as we can just pick and choose those traits we find most desirable and terminate pregnancies willy-nilly when we don’t have that blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy in our uterus. In reality –

By 2020, researchers will have discovered many more genetic variations that substantially raise the risk of common conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and psychiatric disorders, and it will be possible to detect these in embryos, he said.

via Demand for ‘designer babies’ to grow dramatically – Times Online.

Do you know anyone who would terminate a pregnancy if genetic testing showed an increased likelihood of diabetes or bipolar disorder? It’s hard to imagine since most parents receiving genetic counseling and testing are most likely carrying a wanted child. These tests can, however, be helpful to recognize and treat children earlier than you would normally be able to using traditional methods of symptom identification. If you can adjust your child’s diet from birth rather than treating with insulin injections after years of not recognizing the disease, or be alert for signs of schizophrenia and begin treatment before the disease progresses, that’s a good thing.

Certainly there will be some people out there might use genetic testing in a distasteful manner – there are unethical people no matter what the circumstances. And I’m not trying to diminish the negative effect of sex selection in other cultures, but if you’re using abortion to dispose of your baby girl these scientific advancements are not influencing your decisions.

It’s doubtful learning about a higher risk for disease will cause a future parent to throw in the towel and try again for a “better” baby. After all, you’re still working with what you’ve got; and if you’ve got heart disease in your family it’s not going away just because you terminate every embryo that might be in danger of carrying on this family trait. I trust most people undergoing genetic testing understand this fact.

It’s a new decade, how about we embrace science instead of fearing progress? Yes? Yes!

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8 Responses to Who are these people shopping for high-end embryos?

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  2. Paul Raeburn says:

    This is a thought-provoking post.

    I’m all for embracing science, better health, preventing illness, and everything that goes along with those. But, yes, I can easily imagine parents deciding to abort children with severe illnesses. Parents do it all the time when faced with Down syndrome or other ailments now diagnosable before birth. Would some parents want to terminate a pregnancy with a diagnosis of schizophrenia? I’m sure they would. Diabetes? That’s getting closer to the line, as you point out–because it can be treated and some ill effects prevented. We can hope parents won’t terminate for lack of blue eyes, but some are already terminating children based on gender. So we can embrace science, but we should also be prepared for its misuse.

    • April Peveteaux says:

      I definitely agree that some people will make choices that the majority of people might find repugnant – but that small handful shouldn’t be held up as an example of all of the horrible things that could happen with this new found knowledge. I can’t imagine anyone I know having an abortion if they knew their child was genetically predisposed to mental illness. But I can imagine parents-to-be finding out what they can do as their child is developing to help prevent these illnesses from reaching a severe level – something parents who had no idea what was in store for them wish they could have done as well.
      As for the argument that people are already doing this; I personally know many parents who chose not to terminate when given frightening results after genetic testing. And I’m a lefty pro-choicer living in NYC. I looked for stats on this, but could not find any that outlined how many people chose to terminate after being given unfavorable odds for Down syndrome or more severe genetic disorders. Do you have any sources that show this is the majority result?

      • Paul Raeburn says:


        I don’t have any stats on what people decide to do after getting results from genetic testing. But I do remember a study done at Hopkins some years ago when it became possible to test for Huntington’s disease, a kind of dementia that occurs late in life. This was not prenatal testing (although that is now possible), but testing for adults that would tell them whether, in 20 or 30 years, they would develop Huntington’s disease. The surprise was that most people offered the test refused to take it. They didn’t want to know. This anecdote isn’t entirely relevant to what we’re discussing here, but it does suggest that people’s behavior in this arena can be hard to predict.

  3. Todd Essig says:

    I’m afraid there are lots and lots of people who’ll seek out a market for designer babies. It’s already happening in the reproductive medicine world. The following is from a Feb. WSJ article about pre-implanation genetic diagnosis (PGD):

    “In a recent U.S. survey of 999 people who sought genetic counseling, a majority said they supported prenatal genetic tests for the elimination of certain serious diseases. The survey found that 56% supported using them to counter blindness and 75% for mental retardation.

    More provocatively, about 10% of respondents said they would want genetic testing for athletic ability, while another 10% voted for improved height. Nearly 13% backed the approach to select for superior intelligence, according to the survey conducted by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine.”

    I wish it were the case, like you say, “doubtful learning about a higher risk for disease will cause a future parent to throw in the towel and try again for a “better” baby.” I’d like to live in that world!! But I’m afraid a significant number–maybe not a majority–of prospective parents will actively shop for the traits they want once the technology makes it possible to do so.

    • Todd Essig says:

      ooops …. here’s the link to the PGD article, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123439771603075099.html

    • April Peveteaux says:

      Thank you Todd, for this link. I think the 10% figures are not frightening enough to create a panic that people will rush to create a nation of “superior” babies. Also according to the article it seems labs would be highly unlikely to participate in cosmetic screening (for now, anyway).

      There is also a big difference in implanting an embryo with the best chance of survival – one which does not carry a deadly disease – than aborting a fetus after a woman is pregnant and learns the baby might not be perfect. When you start talking about blindness – and the example of deaf parents screening for a deaf child was also interesting – it does get murky.

      Still, I believe incendiary headlines and geneticists braying about parents wanting designer babies does a huge disservice to scientific progress and plays on the overblown and mostly inaccurate stereotype about “entitled parents these days.”

      Thanks for the lively discussion everyone!

  4. Pingback: Who are these people shopping for high-end embryos? – April … | All Topics Blog

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