"Designer baby" doctor no longer offering embryo screening for cosmetic traits

i-01424a23b235317f6e56af9b0fb391dd-steinberg.jpgLast month I mentioned a US fertility clinic that was offering couples undergoing IVF the opportunity to screen their embryos for sex, and for genes associated with "cosmetic" traits such as eye and hair colour. I used this as an opportunity to note that the genetic complexity of many traits (e.g. height, also discussed yesterday) would make it highly unlikely that embryo screening would be effective for these, although for hair and eye colour such screening is certainly feasible.

The media coverage of this fertility clinic - run by reproductive endocrinologist Jeff Steinberg (pictured) - predictably sparked a wave of moral outrage and tedious chest-beating about the "slippery slope" of parents "playing God".

It appears that this outrage has made an impact: Steinberg announced on Tuesday that his clinic will not be offering "cosmetic" screening to couples, at least for the moment:

At the moment, he can't accommodate parents who want a certain eye
and hair color for cosmetic reasons, he said. He'll focus instead on
families with histories of albinism, color blindness and several other
genetic disorders.

Steinberg, who has offices in Manhattan and Los Angeles, said he's accepting requests from nonmedical cases "but we're not doing it right now."

It's obvious that Steinberg intends to keep his options open for performing cosmetic screening in future; a message on his clinic's website reads:

In response to the recent media and public interest in our eye color,
hair color and skin pigmentation study protocols, we are pleased to
announce plans to focus our attention in this regard on patients with a
child with any of the following disorders: albinism, red-green color
blindness, Angelman Syndrome or Prader-Willi Syndrome. We would request
that any interested parents email us with details of the condition
along with a request for which services would be of interest to you.
For all others seeking pigmentation studies, please email us a
notification of interest. You will be contacted at a later date.
you. [my emphasis - DM]

The response to Steinberg's service indicates that the US
public is still wary of the notion of embryo screening for anything but
severe diseases (that type of screening they have embraced
whole-heartedly; the vast majority of pre-natal diagnoses of Down syndrome now lead to termination).

Still, a sizeable minority is open to the idea. In a previous post I cited a survey of 1,000 genetic counselling patients that indicated around 10% would be willing to screen for non-disease traits such as intelligence or athletic performance; in a web survey attached to an online article about Steinberg's retraction, ~30% of respondents have currently indicated that they would "choose the color of [their] baby's eyes and hair if [they] were given the chance".

As genetic literacy improves I'd guess that potential parents undergoing IVF will learn
that complex traits like intelligence and athleticism are futile
targets for embryo screening, but both gender and genetically simple
variable traits (such as hair, eye and skin colour) are perfectly feasible targets; and I'm finding it pretty hard to come up with a compelling ethical objection to this type of selection.

After all, if parents are
already undergoing IVF, is there really any harm in selecting between
embryos for implantation on the basis of predicted traits, however arbitrary?
Why is this process any less moral than randomly selecting embryos for implantation? (I am, for the sake of argument, assuming that the predictive tests are accurately performed and presented, and that excess embryos are not being generated purely for the sake of cosmetic screening, but rather as a consequence of the standard IVF procedure.)

I'm looking for something a little more convincing than the standard arguments: "playing God" is irrelevant to non-believers; "slippery slope" is an insubstantial criticism that could equally well apply to virtually any new technology; "commodification of human life" requires the unlikely claim that a child developed from a selected embryo is any less emotionally valued by its parents than a normally conceived child; and "loss of diversity" implies that all parents want the same traits for their children, which is clearly false. Does anyone have a more compelling criticism?

And out of interest, how many readers would consider embryo selection for gender or cosmetic traits if they were undergoing IVF?

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Edited 2/2/09: The cited study discusses pre-natal genetic screening, not only embryo screening; I've updated some wording to reflect this, but it doesn't have any major impact on the overall message. Razib points to an article suggesting that Australian couples are "flocking" to a US fertility…
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This is an example of an area where our paleo brains can't quite seem to wrap around a very pragmatic idea. Why shouldn't people choose (after all they HAVE to choose somehow, is this less desirable than random chance?)

But that seems to be part of it. We evolved in a world where much of reproduction (other than initiation) was completely out of our control, and strangely people seem to feel morally threatened by the concept of being given some level of control.

Let's let the lighting in singles bars decide what traits are good.

By anomalous (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink

We're having a similar discussion at philosopher Stephen Law's blog. If I were using IVF, yeah, I think I might use cosmetic screening, as long as the embryos I was choosing from were all equally healthy. I don't currently have a gender preference for a hypothetical child, but my husband's blue eyes and thick, brown hair are preferable to my hazle eyes and limp, prematurely greying hair. However, as stated in the other thread, I consider it tacky to undergo IVF just for cosmetic screening.

This is a very interesting situation. I've not given much thought to "designer babies" because I assumed it was a bit farther down the road. I can understand the desire, as Jackal mentions, to give your child some 'preferable' cosmetic traits. But I think it goes beyond tacky. What if a couple chose an embryo based on cosmetic traits, and the child ends up with an awful genetic condition? We are not able to screen for many genetic diseases, as there are just too many too look at. I would think the guilt (would that be guilt?) associated with that would be much more than if the child had the same disease and it truly was due to chance. Although, as I'm single and childless, maybe thats the same guilt that goes with any undesirable traits being passed on. Any parents wish to comment on that?

By Hank Bones (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink

I don't care about eye color, but I might screen for gender to balance out my family (ie: one of each).

I think screening for intelligence is not as hopeless as you think, in the long term. And I would screen for that if reliable.
I wouldn't care about athletic ability.

Most importantly, I would screen for severe early onset diseases.

What if a couple chose an embryo based on cosmetic traits, and the child ends up with an awful genetic condition? We are not able to screen for many genetic diseases, as there are just too many too look at. I would think the guilt (would that be guilt?)

Would that be any different from using random chance to pick an embryo? Knowledge will always be incomplete, but unless the parents chose certain traits, while ignoring information about health traits (I can't imagine that happening), then it's simply the process we've dealt with for many years. There is a strong element of chance.

I am intrigued also by the distinction between 'cosmetic' traits versus other traits. It seems almost a Puritan ethic coming out here, that somehow choosing for good looks or talent is viewed as a guilty choice.

Hm, if possible, I'd definitely pick my husbands hair genes over mine for a kid, as his are healthier. But that's not a hair color issue as we both have the same. But I already carry a lot of genetic diseases so trying to find a healthy enough embryo as well as the better hair genes might be a tall order.
Picking eggs based on genes have already crossed my mind repeatedly in the past, but not this way. I've for a long time considered mixing my husbands genes with someone elses, when we decide to have children. I doubt I desire to risk giving our kids the illnesses my genes carry. Unfortunately my husband isn't too happy about that because of sentimental reasons.

PGD chooses from within the parents' genes pools, so there's nothing wrong with it. They're just choosing what type of their own baby they want to have right, any one of those embryos could have resulted naturally by chance. So I think it's fine. It's their free choice. Also, this totally destroys the eugenics idea that we are pure, as it shows that for example, two parents who are both black-hispanic-asian-white-everything could select for a child with blonde, brown, black, red hair or whatever, because they have all those genes, so all us humans can share the genes and everybody can just choose whatever color they like. Also, because people all have different tastes, randomization will even everything out. Also, like someone said, it's already been happening for centuries. why do you think we choose our spouses? same thing!