“Designer Baby” Service Put on Hold

March 04, 2009 06:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
A doctor who claimed that he would begin using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to select cosmetic traits of babies has indefinitely postponed the service.

Steinberg Shelves “Designer Baby” Service

Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, clinic director of the Fertility Institutes, said Tuesday that for the time being his clinics would not use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to determine cosmetic traits in babies.

The Fertility Institutes had been advertising a service that allowed parents to choose cosmetic traits such as eye, hair and skin color for their baby. His proposal sparked a largely negative public reaction, and many of his colleagues in the PGD field criticized him for corrupting the intended purpose of PGD.

Steinberg had been quoted as saying that he expected a trait-selected baby to be born next year, but he has pulled the service due to an overwhelming number of calls about it. He told the New York Daily News that the clinics will continue to accept requests for trait-selected babies, but “but we're not doing it right now.”

His clinics instead focus on medical cases, helping parents with histories of genetic diseases. “We're going to limit it to people with genetic diseases because we just cannot keep up with what's going on,” he said to the Daily News.

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Opinion: Opposition to “designer babies”

Steinberg’s proposed use of PGD to determine traits such as hair and eye color was opposed by leading geneticists and others in the fertility field. “No legitimate lab would get into it and, if they did, they’d be ostracized,” said director of Genesis Genetics Institute Mark Hughes to The Wall Street Journal.

Geneticist William Kearns, who, like Hughes, is a pioneer in the use of PGD, says, “I’m totally against this. My goal is to screen embryos to help couples have healthy babies free of genetic diseases. Traits are not diseases.”

Pamela Madsen, founder of the American Fertility Association, wrote on her blog The Fertility Advocate that she is disgusted by Steinberg’s work. “Reproductive Technologies are not about ‘cosmetic medicine’ as Jeff Steinberg so glibbly put it. Some things do need to have some sacred space around it,” she said. “And the creation of life and the end of life is one of those things that deserves sacred space.”

Others feared that “designer babies” would lead to new forms of discrimination in society. The Times of India’s Vikram Sinha wrote, “At its most basic level, it smacks of eugenics. … At the very least, fixing the genetic lottery could bring about a uniformity in societies and cultures that would be a spur for xenophobia.”

Background: Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis was initially developed in the early 1990s as a way to distinguish healthy embryos from those predisposed to genetic diseases during in vitro fertilization. By identifying genetic defects in embryos, the process allows prospective parents to select only healthy embryos to be implanted in the uterus.

It has also been used to select the gender of a child, a controversial service that is banned in countries such as Britain, Canada and China. It is legal in the United States, and according to a 2006 survey by the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University, 42 percent of 137 PGD clinics in the United States allowed parents to select gender.

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