Recent reports say that in vitro fertilization (IVF) is reaching record popularity amongst Americans. As this technology becomes more widely used, the accompanying use of pre-implantation screenings may make “designer babies” more acceptable in the future.
In vitro fertilization is a process by which eggs are removed from a woman’s ovaries and then fertilized with sperm outside of her body. The newly fertilized egg is allowed to divide and grow for several days before being implanted in the woman’s uterus. Once implanted, the embryo will continue to develop into a normal baby. IVF is a popular method to bypass a number of fertility problems such as low sperm counts, egg and sperm antibody incompatibility, or problems with ovulation.
A single in vitro fertilization procedure costs over $12,000, and not every attempt is successful. As a way to maximize the likelihood of a successful birth, many IVF centers also started offering services for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). A PGD procedure involves removing a single cell from a developing embryo and analyzing its genetic information. Only the embryo(s) that are free from defects are selected to be implanted into the mother.
Back when it first became widely available, PGD was geared primarily towards parents that knew they were at risk of passing on a genetic disorder to their children. However as the technology and market grew, PGD services were increasingly promoted to parents that were otherwise healthy, but wanted control over which embryos they selected for implantation.
In addition to health screenings, today’s parents are offered options for “family balancing”. Through genetic analysis parents can determine the sex of the fertilized embryos and choose to implant only the embryos of the desired gender.
A study published in Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology reported that applications for PGD have increased steadily over the last decade. In addition to that, the technology behind PGD continues to expand and will offer the growing market of IVF-using couples ever more information about their potential offspring. Researchers warn that the technology is developing at a rate that may quickly outstrip the speed at which society can consider the ethical implications. Others say that we have already been left behind.
Perhaps even more exciting and controversial still is the option of whole genome amplification (WGA). WGA allows for an analysis of the entire genome of the embryo—not just the sections of it that are examined during a PGD analysis. WGA theoretically allows one to determine a whole host of different characteristics, including items such as height, complexion, and color for hair and eyes. However this remains a highly controversial topic and as of yet no IVF/PGD programs offer this kind of service.
This is not to say that the increasing use of IVF technology will lead us to live in a society similar to the 1997 film Gattaca. Most couples simply want the healthy offspring that they are otherwise unable to conceive. Rather, it is simply worth noting that the steady increase in popularity for IVF and PGD services may yet make selecting for some traits and physical characteristics more acceptable to the public. Such mainstreaming has the potential to widen the gray zone of what is morally justifiable.
To summarize, as in vitro fertilization becomes more widely used, we might also find that our society is increasingly open to the idea of the “designer baby”.
By Sarah Takushi
The Sacremento Bee