Screening embryos for eye, hair, and skin color.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 17 2009 8:10 AM

Color ID

Screening embryos for eye, hair, and skin color.

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Kearns isn't offering his method for aesthetic PGD. He adamantly opposes this application as an unethical abuse of the technology. But his breakthrough inadvertently shows less scrupulous followers how they could serve their own ends. *

6. Doctors have an easy way to talk themselves into offering the service. Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, medical director of the Fertility Institutes, sees trait selection as a natural extension of the road his profession is already traveling. "This is cosmetic medicine," he tells the Journal. Watch Steinberg's promotional video, and you'll see how easy it is to sell trait selection as just another consumer service. Reproductive technology can "help fertile and infertile couples choose the gender they've always wished for," the video's female narrator promises. Steinberg appears on camera, assuring potential customers that his personnel are experts at "evaluating embryos and making sure that people get their request for a boy or a girl." You want a girl? We'll get you a girl. You want a blonde? We'll get you a blonde.

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7. Patients have an easy way to talk themselves into buying the service. You don't have to request PGD just to screen your embryos for eye or hair color. That might feel icky. Instead, Steinberg offers you a package deal:

Patients having genetic screening for abnormal chromosome conditions in their embryos will be able to elect expanded testing that can greatly increase the odds of achieving a healthy pregnancy with a preselected choice of gender, eye color, hair color and complexion, along with screening for potentially lethal diseases, screening for cancer tendencies (breast, colon, pancreas, prostate) and more.

See how smooth the transition can be? You're already screening for diseases. Why not add one more factor while you're at it? So now you'll know which embryos are male and which are female, just in case two of them turn out to be healthy and you're lucky enough to be able to choose which one to put in the womb. And if you're checking sex, why not throw in eye color and complexion? You don't have to do anything with the information yet. Just run the test and find out what your options are.

8. Globalization thwarts regulation. "A large majority of industrialized countries—including Canada, the UK, most of Europe, Japan, Israel, China, and Australia—prohibits non-medical sex selection," notes the Center for Genetics and Society. But the United States doesn't, and according to CGS Associate Director Marcy Darnovsky, Steinberg exploits this gap by "offering travel packages so that people can come to the US to dodge laws in their home nations." CGS wants tougher U.S. laws. Good luck with that: Steinberg already has a satellite clinic in Mexico.

This is how revolutions happen: Technology matures, trends converge, and cultural changes pave the way. By the time Steinberg opens his trait-selection business and does for that practice what he's already doing for sex selection, it'll be too late to stop him. In fact, before you know it, we'll be used to it.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. The unexcused presence of unmanned killing machines. 2. Toilets and coffins to fit fat people. 3. Why condom sales  are up.)

Clarification, Feb. 18, 2009: My original paraphrase of Dr. Kearns' position on PGD for aesthetics—that he wasn't offering it but was "inadvertently showing less scrupulous followers how they could make it work"—failed to convey his strong opposition to the practice. Here is the Journal's full description of Kearns' position:

Dr. Kearns says he is firmly against the idea of using PGD to select nonmedical traits. He plans to offer his PGD amplification technique to fertility clinics for medical purposes such as screening for complex disorders, but won't let it be used for physical trait selection. "I'm not going to do designer babies," says Dr. Kearns. "I won't sell my soul for a dollar."

( Return to the revised paragraph.)

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