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Designer-Baby Projects Coming of Age

8/2/2004 - 5:00 AM PST

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Picking and Choosing of Embryos Has Ethicists Aghast

LONDON, August 2, 2004 (Zenit) - British health authorities have relaxed rules to allow the creation of "designer babies," that is, embryos selected to provide tissues and other material for their sick siblings. The procedure had been banned under rules governing in vitro fertilization procedures, BBC explained July 21.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) decided to liberalize the regulations following an application by Dr. Mohamed Taranissi, director of London's Assisted Reproduction Gynecology Center. Taranissi sought permission to create a designer baby for a 2-year-old boy from Northern Ireland, Joshua Fletcher, who suffers from a potentially fatal blood disorder, Diamond Blackfan anemia.

"We have decided to relax the rules on embryo selection to enable all couples who want to be able to select an embryo who might be a tissue match for an existing seriously ill sibling to be able to do that," said Suzi Leather, head of the HFEA. Leather added that each case would be looked at on its own merits, and said it would be a "treatment of last resort."

The sibling will be used to provide stem cells to stimulate Joshua's body to produce healthy red blood cells. The cells would be taken from the umbilical cord of the newborn baby, reported the London daily Times on July 22.

Criticism of the approval came from Josephine Quintavalle, of the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics. "We are absolutely appalled," she said in comments reported by BBC. "It is grossly unethical, and grossly undemocratic."

Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, a member of the Catholic Bishops' Joint Bioethics Committee, said in a press release: "One can understand the motives of those parents who request such a procedure, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that embryos are human beings, whether implanted in the womb and carried to term, or reproduced and then destroyed in the laboratory."

The archbishop added: "For every embryo implanted using the technique proposed, many will be destroyed. We do not as a society have the right to initiate human life either to destroy it, or for purposes, however nobly intended, which render that life a means to someone else's ends. Human life is not a commodity; a baby is not a product; an embryo is not a cluster of exploitable cells."

Eugenic beliefs?

Debate over genetics and reproduction is set to continue in Britain, following the launching July 16 of a three-month consultation process. During this period the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) will accept testimony and opinions on developments in genetics and reproduction.

To start debate the HGC published a discussion document titled, "Choosing the Future: Genetics and Reproductive Decision Making." The commission will evaluate the contributions and submit a report to the government late next year.

In the field of prenatal genetic screening of embryos, the HGC will consider whether parents should have unlimited choices on what tests to apply. It will also consider what obligations are there to future generations and what regulatory framework should govern such genetic screening.

"Choosing the Future" acknowledges that "Some people see current practices in the screening and diagnosis of genetic conditions as reflecting eugenic beliefs because they feel the overall aim is to prevent the birth of disabled children." But others, continues the document, claim "that recent developments are not eugenic but instead reflect changing attitudes about choice and the right of individuals to make decisions they believe are best for them and their families."

Tasmanian debate

Earlier this year a debate over designer babies broke out in Australia, involving a couple from the state of Tasmania. Doctors at a Sydney clinic, according to the local Daily Telegraph on March 8, developed a test to screen embryos to select a baby brother for a 4-year-old with a rare immune deficiency.

The Sydney clinic is the only one in the country that uses preimplantation genetic diagnosis to screen embryos for tissue match for an existing sibling. It required three cycles of IVF treatment to produce a sufficient number of embryos to create one that was viable and not affected by the same problem as the couple's other son.

In statements to the Daily Telegraph, the clinic's medical director, Robert Jansen, explained that the stem cells would be taken from the discarded placenta. The newspaper also interviewed Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher, spokesman on health ethics for the Catholic Church in Sydney. He explained that one of the objections the Church has to designer babies is that the embryos that do not provide the desired stem cells will be discarded.

More recent developments regarding designer ...

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