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Designer babies may be a turning point in science, but should we take that turn?

PB Jayakumar     February 5, 2015

Business Today Senior editor PB Jayakumar
In 2002, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's daughter Jennifer Jane was born prematurely and died at infancy due to brain haemorrhage. Misfortune struck again when Brown's second son James Fraser was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (a genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs) at the age of nine. Current UK Prime Minister David Cameron's son Ivan died in 2009 at the age of six after suffering from epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

"As someone who has had the experience of having a severely disabled child (Ivan), I have every sympathy with those parents," Cameron told the UK Parliament this week as Britain is trying to rectify God's designs with the help of science.

The British Parliament's House of Commons this week approved a controversial bill, the Human Fertilization and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015, which legalises the latest scientific innovation to make designer babies without genetic disorders, from three parents. Once the House of Lords also passes this bill, the UK will become the first country in the world to approve birth of such genetically modified babies.  

This three-parent in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) technique involves intervening in the natural fertilisation process. Defects in the mitochondria, the energy-producing structures outside a cell's nucleus, are believed to be the reason for many genetically inherited diseases, such as muscular dystrophy, severe muscle weakness, and heart, kidney and liver failure. In this, scientists artificially remove the faulty mitochondrial DNA of the mother and replace it with healthy DNA from another woman. The resulting embryo will have the nuclear DNA from its parents and the mitochondrial DNA from the donor. Effectively, the child will have three genetic parents.

Those who support the bill say the same kind of opposition and concerns were raised when scientific innovations like IVF was introduced in the 1970's and genetically modified crops were introduced to the world.

Here the issue is larger than that. The issue is not the scientific innovation that may help many parents to have their next generations devoid of diseases, but the ethical issue of scientific interventions in the sanctity of birth, and sanctity of the phrase 'biological parents'. The bill will also set a new precedent for genetic manipulation - making of designer babies according to one's fantasies, like super human babies with Einstein's brain and Cleopatra's beauty.  Already the Church of England, Catholic Church, Christian Medical Fellowship, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Islamic Medical Association UK, etc. are opposing the bill, saying permanent change to a person's genetic make-up has huge ethical consequences and raises concerns about producing designer babies.

Designer babies may be the future, but the concept questions the ethical fabric of humanity. It may be a turning point in science and innovation, but should we take that turn?

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