Designer-Baby Projects Coming of Age
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."
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."
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 babies came from the United States. A May 5 report by the Associated Press described how a Chicago laboratory helped create babies to serve as stem cell donors for five families. In all cases the babies were selected from embryos so as to provide cells to help siblings who suffer from leukemia or anemia.
Dr. Anver Kuliev, who participated in the research, said that, so far, stem cells from the umbilical cord blood of one infant have been donated to an ailing sibling.
Criticism came from Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. bishops' conference. "This was a search-and-destroy mission," he said. The chosen embryos "were allowed to be born so they could donate tissue to benefit someone else."
In Spain, meanwhile, clinics may soon get the green light for designer babies, reported the national daily El País on July 20. Health Minister Elena Salgado said she was in favor of allowing couples to genetically select babies to act as a donor for a sick brother or sister. The government is now considering changes to the law on artificial fertilization techniques, with the aim of introducing a new legal framework by year-end.
The issue of designer babies came up in May, when it was revealed that at least 16 couples had applied to clinics for designer babies. Current law only allows genetic selection before implantation of embryos, in order to discard those suffering from a hereditary disease.
A commentary on designer babies was recently published on the Web site of the U.S.-based Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. In his article titled "Designer Babies: One Step Closer," center fellow Samuel Hensley pointed out the ethically objectionable practice of discarding embryos considered unsuitable. He also raised the question of whether human life should be created for the purpose of benefiting others.
"Should a child be created specifically to save another person's life, or should a child be welcomed and loved unconditionally regardless of his or her instrumental value in helping someone else?" Hensley asked.
This concern is not limited to a Christian perspective, he observed. Philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, argued "that human beings should always be treated as ends in themselves and not as the means for another person to attain his or her ends."
Hensley commented: "The temptation to redefine parenthood to include choosing particular characteristics in their children, as opposed to unconditionally accepting offspring as a gift of God, seems fraught with perils."
He concluded: "Creating life primarily to serve someone else, especially when the other life may be rejected and destroyed for the simple reason that it did not meet the parents' needs, is an action that should always be condemned."
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