British Push For "Designer Babies" Continues, Pro-Life Groups Concerned

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 20, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

British Push For "Designer Babies" Continues, Pro-Life Groups Concerned

by Maria Gallagher Staff Writer
July 20, 2004

London, England ( — The push for "designer babies" is resurfacing in Great Britain.

Dr. Mohamed Taranissi of the Assisted Reproduction Gynaecology Centre in London says a couple from Northern Ireland should be permitted to selectively choose an embryo as a candidate for birth.

The couple, Joe and Julie Fletcher, wants to give birth to a child whose blood could provide treatment for their son Joshua, who has a rare blood disorder. The two-year-old is afflicted with Diamond-Blackfan anemia and requires a transplant of stem cells from a matching donor.

"If the principle is acceptable then it should be acceptable in all cases," Taranissi said.

"You have a child at home that is very seriously ill and you see the pain and agony and know there is a simple treatment out there that will relieve this condition. If it is okay for this child or that child how can you deny it to other people," Taranissi asked.

Taranissi’s comments come as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority prepares to review its laws this Wednesday. At issue is whether the agency should change its policy to allow parents to screen IVF embryos for desirable characteristics and not just for serious genetic diseases.

Representatives of the agency have apparently refused to say whether the organization will alter its policy.

In the past, parents have been allowed to screen if it is of benefit to the embryo, but not in cases where the purpose is to create babies specifically for the purpose of providing treatment to siblings.

But Joe Fletcher is dismissing the ethical considerations of embryo selection. Fletcher’s son is now undergoing a blood transfusion every three weeks in an effort to deal with his illness.

"We only want to give our son the best chance for a cure for a condition which could take his life," Fletcher said.

Any change in the screening rules, however, is likely to be opposed by pro-life groups who question the ethics of embryo selection.

Some readers of a BBC website expressed horror at the idea of physicians attempting to produce made-to-order babies.

"How do they know that an engineered baby would be perfectly healthy anyway," one reader wrote. "Why don’t they just leave genetic engineering to the realms of Mary Shelley novels?"

Others are questioning whether the Authority has the training necessary to decide whether to allow the production of designer babies. Critics note that the British fertility monitoring agency is an unelected body and that none of the committee members is qualified in medical ethics.

The issue of designer babies has been a subject of debate in Great Britain in recent years.

In 2002, Jayson and Michelle Whitaker, who were also treated by Taranissi, wanted to create an embryo match for their son Charlie, who had a blood disorder.

However, British authorities refused to screen an IVF embryo because it would not have benefited the unborn child. The Whitakers ultimately went to the U.S., which allowed the screening. The couple gave birth to a child the following year.

The Human Genetics Commission is now seeking public comment on the issue of embryo screening to create designer babies.

Meanwhile, pro-life activists have vigorously opposed the idea, noting that the destruction of "left over" embryos represents the taking of innocent human life. Pro-life groups have described plans to create designer babies as "unethical and unnecessary."

Josephine Quintavalle of the Comment on Reproductive Ethics told the British press, "We must fight very strongly to protect the rights of the child that is going to be created."

Quintavalle is campaigning for an international bank of cells from umbilical cords and placentas to provide adult stem cells. Such donations would not result in the destruction of human embryos.

Quintavalle said decisions about designer babies should be made by the public and the British Parliament — not by the HFEA.

The pro-life group Life echoed Quintavalle’s comments, telling the British press, "All screening is morally unacceptable. It is discriminating against life that is regarded as less than perfect. Children should be accepted absolutely for what they are in themselves, not for what use they can be put to."