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Australian "Ethicist" Says We Should Only Breed Smart Babies

Furthering the philosophies of eugenicists and modern "designer baby" emulators, an Australian ethicist has advocated genetically screening embryos to create superior "designer babies" with higher IQs.

In 2004 the term “designer baby” made the transition from sci-fi movies and weblogs into the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as “a baby whose genetic makeup has been artificially selected by genetic engineering combined with in vitro fertilization to ensure the presence or absence of particular genes or characteristics."

It is essential that we pause and ask what moral or ethical limits, if any, should apply to the selection of our children’s genes or characteristics.

Ironically and as reported in the Herald Sun, a practical ethics professor from Oxford, Melbourne's Julian Salvulescu has said it is our "moral obligation" to use IVF to choose the smartest embryos, even if that maintains or increases social inequality.

Experts have criticised the Gattaca-style idea, saying the money involved could be better spent improving quality of life in Africa.

They have also warned IQ screening could result in unintended results.

But Dr Salvulescu has said we have a moral obligation to create a smarter society, thereby dramatically reducing welfare dependency, the number of school dropouts, the crowding of jails and the extent of poverty.

"There are other ethical principles which should govern reproduction, such as the public interest," Dr Salvulescu said.

"Even if an individual might have a stunningly good life as a psychopath, there might be reasons based on the public interest not to bring that individual into existence.

"My own view is that the economic and social benefits of higher cognition are reasons in favour of selection, but secondary to the benefits to the individual.

"Cheaper, efficient whole genome analysis makes it a real possibility in the near future."

There are two types of moral or ethical questions one can ask about designer babies. The first addresses the specific technologies that might be used to modify or select a baby’s genetic makeup. The second question looks away from technological details to focus on the very idea of a designer baby.

  • Are the technologies of genetic modification and selection safe enough to be used on humans?
  • Even if the technologies are safe, can they be morally defended?

The Oxford English Dictionary definition describes the way of making designer babies that at the same time is the most conceptually straightforward and raises the biggest concerns about safety. One way to make a designer baby begins with an embryo created by in vitro fertilization (IVF). Genetic engineers modify the embryo’s DNA and then introduce it into a womb.

His comments follow economic modelling in a research paper by Oxford University ethicists Andres Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, showing that if overall IQs were raised by 3 per cent, poverty rates and the number of males in jail would both drop by 25 per cent and welfare dependence by 18 per cent.

Increased intelligence would also reduce the number of parentless children by 20 per cent, the number of out-of-wedlock births by 25 per cent and the number of high school drop-outs by 28 per cent.

The report said while there was little evidence high intelligence caused happiness, there was "ample evidence" low intelligence increased the risk of accidents, low income and "negative life events".

"The overall societal impact of even a small increase in general cognitive function would likely to be sizeable and desirable," the authors wrote.

"Economic models of the loss caused by small intelligence decrements, due to lead in drinking water, predict significant effects of even a few points' decrease."

His comments follow economic modelling in a research paper by Oxford University ethicists Andres Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, showing that if overall IQs were raised by 3 per cent, poverty rates and the number of males in jail would both drop by 25 per cent and welfare dependence by 18 per cent.

The Fertility Institutes recently stunned the fertility community by being the first company to boldly offer couples the opportunity to screen their embryos not only for diseases and gender, but also for completely benign characteristics such as eye color, hair color, and complexion.  The Fertility Institutes proudly claims this is just the tip of the iceberg, and plans to offer almost any conceivable customization as science makes them available.  Even as couples from across the globe are flocking in droves to pay the company their life’s savings for a custom baby, opponents are vilifying the company for shattering moral and ethical boundaries.  Like it or not, the era of designer babies is officially here and there is no going back.

Gender selection is a big business.  Dr. Steinberg, Director at The Fertility Institutes, claims that they are performing on the order of 10 gender selection fertilizations every week, each for a fee of $18,400.  Although In Vitro Fertilizations were originally designed to help parents that were unable to conceive children naturally, Steinberg says that a staggering 70% of their clients have absolutely no difficulty conceiving children, coming to the Institute purely for opportunity to choose the sex of their baby.

The ethical debate surrounding the use of in-vitro fertilisation has been stirred by a Melbourne couple who are fighting to choose the sex of their next child, after aborting twin boys in their quest for a daughter.

Some Australian ethicists, including Gene Ethics director Bob Phelps, fear that once the science catches up with people's ambition, allowing sex selection would lead to the creation of designer babies in Victoria.

Geneticists say intelligence is a complex trait, composed of different attributes including problem-solving, perception and reasoning. Consequently, a specific gene for IQ is unlikely to be discovered.

But genetic research is making major headway into dissecting the building blocks of what makes us who we are.

More than 6000 hereditary genetic diseases are now known and the project that has mapped the human genome now allows scientists to work out gene variance between individuals.

That is fuelling hopes that a specific level of intelligence, sporting ability and mental strength will one day be linked to genes and therefore be able to be screened and selected through IVF.

The idea, however, has even ethicists divided.

Prof Neil Levy, head of neuroethics at Florey Neuroscience Institute and a neuroethicist and deputy research director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, said investing in designer embryos would be "an enormous waste of money".

"My view is this is essentially a distraction," he said.

"Why spend all that money when we could be doing so much with that money to increase the IQs and life spans of babies in sub-Saharan Africa?

"The pay-off in terms of raising quality of life for many people would be much greater than you'd get from concentrating on just a few."

Prof Levy said society had double standards about new "cognitive enhancers" but they readily accepted current ones, such as caffeine, anti-depressants and Ritalin.

"If you have an enriched environment as a kid, you're just going to have a higher IQ -- that's an effective cognitive enhancer and probably more effective than Ritalin," Prof Levy said.

"Birth weights strongly predict IQ and the mother's nutritional status strongly predicts IQ. But these are things we're not worried about, because we're used to them.

"It's just the new things we're concerned about.

"Coffee is a cognitive enhancer. If this came on the market today, I think you'd have a lot of trouble making it legal.

"It would be quite easy to modify the ethanol molecule to create a version of alcohol which tasted like alcohol, had the effects of alcohol of making you feel good, but had a much better health profile.

"But nobody is going to bother doing it, because it wouldn't be legal, even though it would be safer," Prof Levy said.

Having the expertise to fulfil futuristic ambitions is still "a fair way off", according to Victorian Clinical Genetic Services director Dr David Amor.

Legally, in Victoria, the genetic testing of embryos can be carried out only with the aim of preventing the transmission of a severe genetic disorder such as muscular dystrophy, Huntington's disease, and Down syndrome.

Dr Amor said the genetics of intelligence was still poorly understood.

"It is likely that some genes involved in intelligence have both advantages and disadvantages, depending on the complex genetic environment they are placed in," Dr Amor said.

"It's possible an embryo that appeared to have a perfect genetic make-up for intelligence might turn out to have less desirable attributes in other areas, such as health or personality.

"It might be a case of 'be careful what you wish for'."

Dr Amor said another limitation of genetically testing for intelligence and personality traits was the number of embryos cultivated through IVF.

"Most couples having IVF only produce a handful or embryos suitable to test and therefore the ability to select is limited," he said.

"Even if there were larger numbers of embryos, intelligence of children tends to cluster closely around that of parents.

"Therefore, if a hypothetical genetic test for intelligence was applied to embryos, results would most likely be similar for all embryos."

Some of the most challenging moral and ethical questions about a licence to design babies concern the societies it might lead to. The movie Gattaca depicts a future in which genetically enhanced people take the lead, viewing unenhanced people as fit only to clean up after them. Will genetic enhancement bring this social arrangement to an end, creating societies in which unenhanced people are viewed by their genetic superiors in much the same way that we currently view chimpanzees, suitable for drug testing and zoo exhibits but little else?


Reference Sources
February 17, 2011


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