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Surprising Science

#19: Design Your Baby

What would you do to give your child a head-start in life? If you’re one of the millions of so-called “helicopter parents” we discussed previously in our series, the answer is “a lot.” From macrobiotic baby food to Mandarin lessons, parents are spending more and more money and time to mold their children into perfectly healthy and well-rounded wunderkinds. And soon science will allow parents to genetically design their child to look and think exactly how they want him or her to as well. 

The technology to choose the characteristics of your child using a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis already exists. Last year a Los Angeles fertility clinic announced that, in addition to offering parents the standard option of choosing their child’s sex, they would be able to choose their child’s hair and eye color as well. But one letter from the Vatican (and a whole lot of public outrage) later, the clinic nixed the program.

James Hughes, a bioethicist and director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, says that the right to choose a child’s traits, cosmetic or not, should be part of a parent’s basic reproductive freedoms. Reproductive freedoms shouldn’t apply just to contraception and abortion rights, Hughes tells Big Think. “They also include the freedom to have children, and the kind of children we prefer.”

Hughes dislikes the term “designer babies,” saying it “impugns the motivations of parents, who are generally trying to ensure the best possible lives for their children.” How different really is wanting to pass on the best genes than spending exorbitant amounts on violin lessons and private education, asks Hughes. “If parents provide food, exercise, and education for children to ensure that they are smart and healthy we praise them as responsible. When they try to ensure the same goods for their children with reproductive technology we imply that they have twisted, malign, instrumental values.”

Still, sex selection remains illegal in most parts of the world. Critics question the practical effects of such technology. For instance, the use of sex selection in patriarchal societies like China and India, where there is a strong preference for male children, could lead to disastrous gender imbalances. But Hughes says gender imbalances will persist with or without sex selection technologies, and will work themselves out on their own: “For instance the Indian dowry system and caste bias in arranged marriage is quickly evaporating as men find that getting a wife gets harder. Women who would not have been able to get married for a variety of reasons in the past are now found attractive. Both China and India have launched education campaigns to encourage the birth of girls. Reproductive freedom is more important than ensuring that every boy has a date to the prom.”

Another common critique of gene therapy is that unequal access to this technology will exacerbate divisions between the rich and poor. But banning this technology in the U.S. will not stop those who really want it, says Hughes.  Sex selection is currently illegal in Europe, yet hundreds of Europeans flock to American clinics. “Because of the growth of medical tourism, banning access to a technology will simply restrict access to the wealthy, and will not stem the emergence of a two-tier society,” Hughes says.


According to a 2006 study, there were at least 57 fertility clinics that offer sex selection using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The Fertility Institutes, which sparked the designer baby controversy last year, is the largest, treating 700 people per year.  Its founder, Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, is still a proponent of giving parents the ability to design their babies, despite having killed the program last year. He tells Big Think he hopes that, in time, public opinion will change: “If we make a diligent effort, some of these technologies could be implemented within the next 6 months, and a lot more within a decade,” he believes.  

Why We Should Reject This

Marcy Darnovsky, Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, calls designing babies an “extreme technology.” Advocates claim that it would be entirely safe, but we could never verify that without doing unethical human experimentation, she says.

There are also more philosophical objections. Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, worries that designing babies would “disfigure the relationship between parent and child.” In an article for The Atlantic, Sandel argues that parents’ quest for perfection will warp their ability to love their children. And in our pursuit to “see ourselves astride the world, the masters of our nature,” we might lose something inherently human: “[Designing our children] threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.”

More Resources

A scientific overview of Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis.

— 2006 Johns Hopkins study about the prevalence of sex selection at IVF clinics.

The Case Against Perfection.” The Atlantic, April 2004.


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