Last 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
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. Thank
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?