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Designer Babies

Grades 11-12 | Argumentative | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1250L-1560L

Learning Standards




Prompt: In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists began to study and understand genetics, and by the 1970s, they were successfully modifying the DNA of plants and some small animals. Since the advent of this new technology, advances have been made in genetically modifying vegetables (called GMO, or genetically modified organisms) to increase their nutritional value, resistance to disease, and growth abilities, among other things. In humans, genetic modifications have been limited to the slight “clipping” of sections of DNA to eliminate certain diseases that can be located on those single genetic sequences. As scientists become more familiar with the study and modification of genetics, many people are beginning to question whether the modifications can become more significant, maybe one day allowing parents to “design” a baby, choosing their child’s eye color, intelligence level, height, and other characteristics. However, many people question how ethical these types of modifications truly are.


Read the following sources about genetically modifying human embryos and creating “designer babies.” Then write an essay in which you make a claim about the benefits and risks of genetically modifying human embryos. Use evidence from the sources to support your claim. Be sure to acknowledge and refute the counterclaim that addresses the other side of the argument.





Source 1

Ethics of Designer Babies

by Sarah Ly

March 31, 2011


A designer baby is a baby genetically engineered in vitro for specially selected traits, which can vary from lowered disease-risk to gender selection. Before the advent of genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization (IVF), designer babies were primarily a science fiction concept. However, the rapid advancement of technology before and after the turn of the twenty-first century makes designer babies an increasingly real possibility. As a result, designer babies have become an important topic in bioethical debates, and in 2004 the term “designer baby” even became an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Designer babies represent an area within embryology that has not yet become a practical reality, but nonetheless draws out ethical concerns about whether or not it will become necessary to implement limitations regarding designer babies in the future.

The prospect of engineering a child with specific traits is not far-fetched. IVF has become an increasingly common procedure to help couples with infertility problems conceive children, and the practice of IVF confers the ability to pre-select embryos before implantation. For example, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) allows viable embryos to be screened for various genetic traits, such as sex-linked diseases, before implanting them in the mother. Through PGD, physicians can select embryos that are not predisposed to certain genetic conditions. For this reason, PGD is commonly used in medicine when parents carry genes that place their children at risk for serious diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. Present technological capabilities point to PGD as the likely method for selecting traits, since scientists have not established a reliable means of in vivo embryonic gene selection.

An early and well-known case of gender selection took place in 1996, when Monique and Scott Collins saw doctors at the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, for in vitro fertilization. The Collins’ intended to conceive a girl, as their first two children were boys and the couple wanted a daughter in the family. This was one of the first highly publicized instances of PGD in which the selection of the embryo was not performed to address a specific medical condition, but to fulfill the parents’ desire to create a more balanced family. The Collins’ decision to have a “designer baby” by choosing the sex of their child entered the public vernacular when they were featured in Time Magazine’s 1999 article "Designer Babies." Though the Collins’ case only involved choice of gender, it raised the issues of selection for other traits such as eye color, hair color, athleticism, or height that are not generally related to the health of the child.

Prior to the Collins’ decision to choose the sex of their child, The Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs released a statement in 1994 in support of using genetic selection as a means to prevent or cure specific diseases, but that selection based on benign characteristics was not ethical. Some ethical concerns held by opponents of designer babies are related to the social implications of creating children with preferred traits. The social argument against designer babies is that if this technology becomes a realistic and accessible medical practice, then it would create a division between those that can afford the service and those that cannot. Therefore, the wealthy would be able to afford the selection of desirable traits in their offspring, while those of lower socioeconomic standing would not be able to access the same options. As a result, economic divisions may grow into genetic divisions, with social distinctions delineating enhanced individuals from unenhanced individuals. For example, the science fiction film Gattaca explores this issue by depicting a world in which only genetically-modified individuals can engage in the upper echelon of society.

Other bioethicists have argued that parents have a right to prenatal autonomy, which grants them the right to decide the fate of their children. George Annas, chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights at Harvard University has offered support for the idea of PGD, and the designer babies that result, as a consumer product that should be open to the forces of market regulation. Additionally, other arguments in favor of designer baby technologies suggest that parents already possess a high degree of control over the outcome of their children’s lives in the form of environmental choices, and that this should absolve some of the ethical concerns facing genetic selection. For example, parents keen on establishing musical appreciation in their children may sign them up for music classes or take them to concerts on a regular basis. These choices affect the way a child matures, much like the decision to select certain genes predisposes a child to develop in ways that the parents have predetermined are desirable.

The increased ability to control and manipulate embryos presents many possibilities for improving the health of children through prenatal diagnosis, but these possibilities are coupled with potential social repercussions that could have negative consequences in the future. Ultimately, designer babies represent great potential in the field of medicine and scientific research, but there remain many ethical questions that need to be addressed.

Ly, Sarah, "Ethics of Designer Babies". Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2011-03-31). ISSN: 1940-5030






Source 2

The Ethics of Creating GMO Humans
By The Times Editorial Board

August 3, 2017


In a process that can be likened to the creation of GMO crops, scientists have edited genes in human embryos in order to eliminate a mutation that causes thickening of the heart wall. The embryos were created solely for the scientists’ study and will not be implanted. Nonetheless, the research offers hope that in years ahead, science could prevent many serious genetic diseases at the stage in which people are a microscopic cluster of cells in a petri dish. What’s more, because those edited genes would be carried forth into new generations, the disease might eventually be eliminated altogether.

Is this a glorious new frontier or a troubling situation? Unequivocally, the answer is yes to both.

The research results by an international team of U.S., Chinese, and South Korean scientists were enormously exciting medically. Beyond the technical achievement involved, the team’s work hastened the arrival of a revolutionary form of treatment: removing genes that can lead inexorably to suffering and premature death.

But there is also a great deal we still don’t know about how minor issues might become major ones as people pass on edited DNA to their offspring, and as people who have had some genes altered reproduce with people who have had other genes altered. We’ve seen how selectively breeding to produce one trait can unexpectedly produce other, less desirable outcomes. Remember how growers were able to create tomatoes that were more uniformly red, but in the process, they turned off the gene that gave tomatoes flavor?

Another major issue is the ethics of adjusting humans genetically to fit a favored outcome. Today it’s heritable disease, but what might be seen as undesirable traits in the future that people might want to eliminate? Short stature? Introverted personality? Klutziness?

To be sure, it’s not as though everyone is likely to line up for gene-edited offspring rather than just having babies, at least for the foreseeable future. The procedure can be performed only on in vitro embryos and requires precision timing.

But even with this early study, problematic issues already are evident. Gene editing isn’t the only method to protect against certain hereditary conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which was “edited out” in this study. Children stand a 50% chance of inheriting the condition; if a couple produces several embryos through in vitro fertilization, half of those already would theoretically be free of the mutation, and those are the ones that would be selected for implantation. Gene editing made the process more efficient, but it did not offer hope where there was none, Jennifer Doudna, a molecular and cell biologist at UC Berkeley, observed.

In fact, six months ago, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that scientists involved in germline editing — that is, making changes that would be passed down to future generations — should limit their work to diseases for which there are no other reasonable treatments. The most recent embryo study began before that recommendation was delivered.

That’s emblematic of the real problem: Public policy and the field of bioethics have not caught up with the science of genetic intervention. Yes, federal money can’t be spent on research involving human embryos even when they are still at the stage of a clump of undifferentiated cells. FDA approval would be needed for any actual human therapies, which would be years off.

Still, the technology is advancing more rapidly than society’s discussions about human genetic engineering, the specter of eugenics, and even the seemingly mundane topics of who will own the patents on customized genes and who will have access to gene editing once it is approved.

The answers aren’t easy, but the discussions have to take place and decisions need to be made, probably through an international convention that includes governments, researchers, physicians, and consumer advocates. Taking the research to the next level should mean experimentation with animals rather than humans. They should then be followed for generations to see whether unexpected health issues arise. Gene editing on humans should be introduced one step at a time, starting with the most disastrous diseases and conditions that cannot be tackled in any other way, then tracked long term to ensure safety.

We all would love to eliminate disabling deformities, painful conditions that shorten lives, or genetic mutations that predispose us to various fatal diseases. Although science has a long way to go before such miracles are achieved, research is moving fast. It’s paramount that we get human gene editing right rather than just getting it soon.


Source 3

Scientists Edit DNA of a Human Embryo, Raising Ethical Concerns (video)





Source 4

Modifying a Baby’s Genes












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