New 'designer babies' make life a commodity, bioethicist says


A Los Angeles clinic has announced that it will help couples undergoing a form of fertility treatment screen their embryos for sex and desired physical characteristics such as eye color and height. One Catholic bioethicist is calling the practice as the “ultimate rejection” of the unfit.

The clinic Fertility Institutes will use a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to screen out in-vitro fertilized (IVF) embryos with characteristics the parents do not desire, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Embryos chosen for desired traits will then be implanted into the mother with the hope they will develop and be carried to term.

Normally, PGD is used to screen out embryos carrying deadly genetic disorders. Thousands of parents have reportedly used the procedure for this purpose since its introduction in the 1990s.

But Fertility Institutes takes things a step further, advertising on its website that it can offer sex and physical trait selection.

Jeff Steinberg, director of the clinic, characterized its application of PGD as “cosmetic medicine.”

“Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it,” he told the Wall Street Journal, characterizing trait selection as “a service.”

“We intend to offer it soon,” he added.

Steinberg will use a new method to screen embryos which involves taking cells from five-day-old embryos instead of the typical three-day-old embryo. The method may allow more cells to be obtained and may result in a more reliable diagnosis.

Mark Hughes, a pioneer of the PGD process who directs the Detroit-based fertility laboratory Genesis Genetics Institute called the proposal “technically feasible” but added “no legitimate lab would get into it and, if they did, they’d be ostracized.”

Many countries have banned using PGD for gender selection, but it is permitted in the United States.

CNA discussed the new PGD application with Dr. Marie T. Hilliard, R.N., a staff ethicist and Director of Bioethics and Public Policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center on Wednesday.

She argued that under the procedure, life becomes “a commodity that is to be ordered at will.”

“The unitive and procreative nature of marriage is destroyed. IVF does violence to the marital union. Just as contraception, which constitutes sex without babies, does violence to the conjugal union, engendering babies without sex destroys the self-giving that is the very nature of married love.

When IVF is used, children are produced that are "not the natural outcome of a self-giving act of love of their parents,” Hilliard explained.

“Children who have survived the pre-implantation selection process are left asking, ‘Would my parents have destroyed me if… ?  Would they still love me if… ?’”

Hilliard disputed Hughes’ contention that selection for physical traits is a fringe practice, saying that a September 2006 study from Johns Hopkins University indicates that nine percent of pre-implantation diagnosis is for sex selection.

More in US

“When a study indicates that one out of every eleven babies selected for implantation are selected for their gender, this is significant,” she told CNA. “It is especially significant in that those not selected are often slated for destruction either for research purposes or just abandoned and destroyed because of their gender.

“Gender is one characteristic among many that persons who have commodified human life want to be able to select.”

She also challenged the idea that PGD allows parents to avoid passing on deadly disorders to their children.

“What is occurring is just the opposite. Embryos are engendered. They are conceived human beings then relegated for ‘lethal’ destruction if they have undesirable traits. In fact, the practice is to engender more than are ‘desired’ and then abandon the ‘undesirable’ to a lethal end. Many more human beings are destroyed by this mechanism than are benefitted.”

She explained that “cosmetic medicine” is moral if it does not mutilate or destroy human life, but restores what has been damaged by accident, disease, environment, or other destructive influences.

Businesses, doctors and technicians involved in these procedures are more than cooperating with the evil of abortion, Hilliard told CNA:

“Those directly engaged in these activities are the principal agents of abortion.”

(Story continues below)

She encouraged Catholics to educate themselves about what is happening in PGD procedures.

“Life is being engendered to be destroyed, with only those deemed eugenically fit allowed to live. The implications are incredible for all of us.

“This is especially true for our aging population for whom it can be determined that they are unfit to contribute to society,” she said, referring to Washington voters’ passage of an assisted suicide measure.

Hilliard noted that more than 80 percent of those who request assisted suicide in Oregon fear “loss of dignity.”

“No one loses their dignity,” she told CNA. “Human dignity is innate; but fear of rejection by others can lead to a fear of loss of dignity.

“The ultimate rejection by others is the rejection by one's own parents who have determined that a baby will not have characteristics that the parents desire in a child they ‘produce’.”