Cheryl Miller, "Deliver Us from Designer Babies: Without Strong New Laws, We Will Have Many More Dr. Jeff Steinbergs," New York Daily News, March 6, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by New York Daily News. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
Cheryl Miller is editor of Doublethink, a publication of the conservative America's Future Foundation. She is a 2007 Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow, writing on assisted reproductive technology and the American family. Previously, she was assistant to columnist David Brooks at the New York Times, deputy director of research at the White House Office of Speechwriting, and associate editor of The New Atlantis.
Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg's announcement about plans to offer trait selection services at his clinic is symptomatic of the unregulated market for assisted reproduction services in the United States. In contrast to most other advanced nations, the United States has not passed laws to limit the nonmedical use of preimplantation embryo screening. Although Steinberg's clinic is only offering simple trait-selection techniques, far more extensive uses of trait selection are bound to follow, unless preventive legislative action is taken. The combination of profit opportunity and parents' bottomless desire to give their children advantages will assure that the technology advances. Most Americans are against an unregulated market for such services. Their wishes should be enacted into laws.
You may think Dr. Jeff Steinberg, who made headlines last week [March 2009] for offering to customize babies' hair and eye color, is an anomaly. But get ready for more doctors just like him. The age of designer babies—with all the troubling moral implications that idea carries—is here, unless we pass strong laws to fend it off, as other nations have done.
The United States has long been regarded as the Wild West of assisted reproduction. The $3 billion fertility industry operates with virtually no rules or regulatory oversight.
This is in stark contrast to the rest of the developed world, where the majority of countries have a national regulatory body policing fertility clinics. Indeed, of the 30 industrialized countries—which account for one-fifth of the world's population and have the most fully developed biotechnology sectors—77% have banned embryo screening for nonmedical purposes.
As technology marches on and the fairly crude trait-selection tools that Steinberg said he would employ give way to much more sophisticated methods, the U.S. seems determined to keep its head in the sand. While the American Society for Reproductive Medicine [ASRM] provides guidelines, they are purely voluntary and the society rarely sanctions a clinic for a violation.
In fact, a 2006 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that fewer than 20% of the nation's clinics abided by the ASRM's rules regarding how many embryos should be transferred. Unsurprisingly, Fertility Institutes, where Steinberg works, is among the clinics in violation of this guideline.
One Small Step
Yes, it's true. Steinberg has, for now, put his eye-color and hair-color trait-selection business on the back burner—saying he will only offer similar services to couples seeking to prevent genetic defects. And other fertility doctors insist that the science Steinberg boasted about simply doesn't allow the "designer baby" fear to play out in the real world.
Don't believe it. The science is advancing rapidly, doctors want to make money and for many parents the disturbing desire to tailor their future children is insatiable. The history of embryo screening makes clear: Once you start testing for some genes, it's tempting to start testing for others.
Initially, embryo screening targeted only severe abnormalities like Tay-Sachs. Since then, we've started screening for many more, less serious defects, including diseases with late-adult onset, manageable conditions—like arthritis—and even easily treatable defects like a cleft palate.
The leap from preventing birth defects to ordering up a perfectly healthy, attractive child is actually, at this point, a very small jump. This should trouble everyone who believes in the dignity, uniqueness and value of every human life.
Sex selection—originally intended to prevent sex-linked diseases—is now available to anyone who wants to arrange their family just so. Want your first child to be a boy? There are now hundreds of clinics that will be happy to oblige you.
And so, the leap from preventing birth defects to ordering up a perfectly healthy, attractive child is actually, at this point, a very small jump. This should trouble everyone who believes in the dignity, uniqueness and value of every human life.
Heading Off Future Dangers
Even though the U.S. is the Wild West, there's one Western country we should consider a cautionary tale: the United Kingdom. There, doctors claim cosmetic selection of embryos is necessary to protect against "family distress." One physician even weeded out embryos for a couple who wanted to avoid a congenital squint.
Screening for cosmetic traits is only the tip of the iceberg. In the not-so-distant future, we'll have to contend with ever more difficult dilemmas: Should we select for social traits like intelligence? We now allow deaf parents to select for deaf offspring—will we allow straight parents to select for straight children, and gay parents for gay children?
And when these possibilities become realities, will we see the rich taking advantage of them, leaving the un-enhanced poor on the outside looking in?
We can't tiptoe around these questions any longer. It's time to tame the Wild West. A majority of Americans want more oversight of reproductive technologies, and—as the outcry over Steinberg's clinic shows—disapprove of screening for cosmetic traits.
We have consensus. So what are we waiting for?