One of the nation’s foremost bioethicists wants the U.S. to have a “national conversation” on the topic of designer babies. Noting that a wide range of genetic technologies is now available for people planning a family, Thomas H. Murray, president emeritus of the Hastings Center, says there needs to be a serious discussion over how much discretion would-be parents should have. “Preventing a lethal disease is one thing; choosing the traits we desire is quite another,” he writes in an article (“Stirring the Simmering ‘Designer Baby’ Pot”) in Science.

He refers to public hearings two weeks ago by the FDA to consider whether to permit human testing of a new method of assisted reproduction—mitochondrial manipulation—that would prevent the transmission of certain rare diseases and perhaps address some causes of female infertility. At issue is the safety of the technology, as well as its ethical implications. Among those concerns is that daughters produced by this procedure could pass down the mitochondrial DNA to their children. So far the U.S. has not allowed these kinds of genetic alterations across generations.

“Discussion of the ethics of mitochondrial manipulation cannot be postponed indefinitely,” writes Dr. Murray. “With little prospect of sensible legislation in the near term, and conflicting guidance from professional organizations, a national conversation about current and emerging technologies shaping the choices that parents will have is urgent.”

He says that the FDA’s discussion is the latest development that “tapped into a simmering controversy over what it means to have a child in an era of increasing convergence among genetic, genomic, and reproductive technologies.” Those technologies include preimplantation genetic diagnosis and prenatal screening to detect health problems in the fetus, including the prospects of a blood test of a pregnant woman to screen fetal DNA in her blood.

“Of all the possible choices prospective parents might make, sex selection for nonmedical purposes has prompted the strongest policy response,” continues Dr. Murray writes. “It is prohibited in at least 36 countries, but not in the United States.”

The absence of federal legislation has left the regulation of sex selection up to professional societies. But they have different guidelines, reflecting “clashing ethical frameworks for thinking about parenthood in the genomic era,” he points out.

So Dr. Murray put out his call for national conversation about current and emerging technologies shaping the choices that parents have, beginning with an examination by the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

“It will not be easy to avoid the quicksand of the abortion debate,” writes Dr. Murray in the Science article. “But it would be a great public service to provide a sober assessment of the choices that would-be parents increasingly face, and to encourage a respectful dialogue about the meaning of parenthood and the worth of a child so that parents and children can flourish together.” 

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