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The designer-baby dilemma

The question of so-called "designer babies" is set to become one of the defining issues of the 21st century, standing on the ethical fault line between scientific advances and their practical applications. Is our society ready for it?

This month the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) produced a public consultation document asking whether modern techniques should be used to help decide the sex of an unborn child.

Moral freedom

The last consultation on this issue (in 1993) approved sex selection but said it could only be used to avoid serious sex-related genetic conditions. Now the HFEA is asking whether the techniques should be allowed in non-medical situations - effectively taking the first step in allowing parents to choose the attributes of their unborn child.

In her foreword, HFEA Chair Suzi Leather argues, "People have tried to influence whether their child will be a boy or a girl for hundreds of years. But science has only recently provided ways for people to practise 'sex selection' with any likelihood of success."

Her report states, "There are strong arguments in favour of extending the availability of sex selection based on the assumed moral rights of individuals to exercise freedom of choice... so long as no one, including the resulting child, is harmed."

Playing God

There's no doubt that questions need to be answered. But who's the best man for the job? Josephine Quinataville of Comment on Reproductive Ethics is questioning whether HFEA even has the right to produce this public consultation document.

She says: "This should be a parliamentary issue, not a matter for a self-interested unelected quango. On what basis has it any qualification to make these decisions?"

Ms Quinataville is due in court in December to question the organisation's assumed right to act as some sort of UK ethical arbiter. "You have to be careful about even contemplating the question of sex selection. All human beings are equal, but sex selection is inevitably discriminatory," she said.

The authority has already been heavily criticised by the Science and Technology Select Committee.

Weighing up the options

For every argument, there is an equally strong response. The rights of the individual against the greater good of society; the human rights of the parents balanced with the rights of the unborn child.

A deaf lesbian couple in the US created a storm when they purposefully set out to produce a deaf child and almost succeeded - their baby had partial hearing. They argued they would be better parents to a deaf child, yet many people believe that to knowingly produce a child without a natural faculty is unethical.

Other cases include a Scottish family who already had four boys and wanted a girl to replace their daughter who died. Another family wanted to produce embryos to match their sick son's genetic material so they could use the child's bone marrow cells to tackle his life-threatening illness. There are hundreds more cases, many of which will attract great sympathy.

So how do we come up with answers to the increasing number of questions? And how do we approach the questions in the first place?

Questioning basic values

Dr Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, prefers to look at the premise behind the arguments. He questions why the HEFA recommendation of sex selection for "family balancing" reasons is seen as a good thing. "What is the value of a balanced family? Why is that intrinsically more valuable than an 'unbalanced' family?" he asks.

While it may work for the two adults within a single family, he says that sex selection could create an imbalance in society as a whole. "We don't know yet what the long-term effects would be," he says. "It could become like India or China. In India there are large numbers of men who will just not get married and there is evidence that abuse and rape are on the increase."

Turning fantasy into reality

So can sex selection ever work for the greater good of a country, or even the world? "I don't really see how we can develop into a healthy society on the principle that everyone has a right to decide everything," Dr Nicholson says.

"Overwhelmingly in modern culture we must do everything artificially. I find there is this strange narcissism in which everything must be perfect and there is little place for acceptance. There is something rather reminiscent of Nazi eugenics in all of this."

Ms Quinataville goes one step further, "Are we going to get to the stage where we avoid natural intercourse? Where all babies are created in a laboratory?"

If we follow one route, then yes, Huxley's "Brave New World" could well turn from fiction into real life. But we've still got a long way to go, and before we can start tackling the fundamental issues, we really need to decide who should be asking the questions.

Further information:
Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority -
Bulletin of Medical Ethics -

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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