John Legend’s fashion model wife, Chrissy Teigen, is having a baby girl—and that’s exactly how she planned it. When faced with infertility, Teigen used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to get pregnant, then chose to implant only a female embryo.
“I’ve made this decision,” Teigen, age 30, told People. “Not only am I having a girl, but I picked the girl from her little embryo. I picked her and was like, ‘Let’s put in the girl.’”
While I don’t want to diminish the excitement and joy of bringing new life into this world, the ethics surrounding designer babies aren’t so simple. IVF has opened up a world of possibilities for couples struggling with infertility, but it has also led to some tough questions about genetic screening.
Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is commonly used when parents carry genes that could put their children at risk for a variety of diseases, but it also allows parents to pick the gender of their child. One of the first cases of using PGD not to deal with a serious medical condition but to simply pick the gender of the child according to the parents’ preference was in 1996 with Monique and Scott Collins. They were featured in Time magazine in the 1999 article “Designer Babies.”
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The Collins’ case brought to light the controversial issue of selecting traits, such as eye color, height, hair color, intelligence, etc., that have nothing to do with the baby’s health and well-being. Prior to this case, the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs stated genetic selection should be limited to preventing diseases and not used to create designer babies. The main argument was that allowing this would eventually create a division between wealthy people who can design babies and the rest of society that cannot. The result would be a fractured community, sliced up by preferred genetic distinctions.
The movie “Gattaca” explored this possibility by creating a world where “God-children”—those who were not genetically engineered—were treated as second-class citizens. Leaving reproduction to “chance” was looked upon as foolish.
“We want to give your child the best possible start,” a geneticist told someone who was considering having a child the natural way. “Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn’t need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.”
The result in “Gattaca” was to have the “perfect people” rule over those who were born with all their perfect imperfections (as John Legend would say).
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The issue is complicated because IVF has brought families struggling with infertility so much happiness, and many bioethicists argue that fears about societal divisions should not take away from the scientific benefits or from parents’ autonomy to do what they want through conception, development, or even designing their children. The fact that only those who have money will benefit from these procedures should not factor into it.
While this is a compelling argument, there are cons to creating designer babies that need to be considered. Not only could this practice create a gap in society, it could lead to a greater number of destroyed embryos; damage the gene pool; create conflict between parents and children when the children realize the parents “made them this way”; and remove the child’s choice as his or her body is changed without consent.
If a child’s identity is determined not by the independent functions of reproduction guided by nature or God (however you want to see it) but by the will of the parents, then his or her existence is more a matter of production than creation. This can lead to a loss of individuality as preferred traits become common, making people more and more the same. It reminds me of how women who keep getting plastic surgery to achieve the “ideal” appearance eventually all start looking the same.
Another point relates to issues the transgender community has raised. Given its concerns about gender fluidity and not wanting to “assign” gender at birth, how will choosing sex impact children who later struggle with their identity? What kind of expectations will parents put on their unborn child if they have purposely chosen to have a boy or a girl, and how will this play out in the broader discussion about gender? Issues of gender identity are already creating conflict in society, and this is without human beings controlling the process from the very beginning.
While the advantage of PGD in screening out genetic diseases can’t be denied, the potential conflicts, disadvantages, and risks of creating designer babies need to be considered. Teigen’s choice to implant only a female embryo is certainly hers to make, and we celebrate her daughter’s life, but this is an opportunity to reflect on the implications of designing children to meet our desires and expectations instead of leaving it in God’s hands even as we use science to bring new life into this world.