Designer Babies and Lazy Journalism from The Age

On 3 July, The Age published an article called, “Couples use IVF to pick genes” discussing how IVF has advanced to the stage where couples with some genetic diseases or susceptibilities can now screen out embryos (that is an important word there, remember that one for later) who carry the genes for those diseases or susceptibilities.  I’ll let the article explain more:

FERTILE women with genes that predispose them to breast and ovarian cancers are using IVF treatment at two Melbourne clinics to select embryos without the genes.

In a new trend that has heightened ethicists’ fears of ”designer babies”, Australian IVF specialists say women are spending thousands of dollars on a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select embryos without the same genetic issues.

The women involved carry mutations of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, which give them a 60-80 per cent chance of getting breast cancer in their lifetime.

Those with BRCA 1 also have a 30-60 per cent chance of getting ovarian cancer while those with BRCA 2 have a 5-20 per cent chance of getting ovarian cancer.

Now I’m not sure why “fertile” is even needed here because I’m sure women who are infertile would probably still be utilising this advance should they also be at risk of breast or ovarian cancer.  I’m also curious about the “ethicists” who are so afraid of this advance in IVF technology.  In doing 5 minutes of research on Google, I have located the WA Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) handout for individuals considering such (.pdf):

In Western Australia, approval from the WA Reproductive Technology Council (Council) is required before a fertility clinic can create embryos for PgD. This is to make sure that testing on embryos is only carried out when there is a high risk of a serious genetic condition (not for other reasons such as sex selection of embryos which is not permitted in Australia) and to make sure that patients have received genetic counselling appropriate for their situation.

When making a decision about PgD, the Council considers the risk and severity of the condition, how safe and reliable the test is, and the impact of the condition on both a prospective child and the family.

So couples are required to have genetic counselling, be tested, and they (or the clinic) effectively have to lodge an application to have the procedure approved.  It doesn’t look like that this will be used to create designer babies, though I do see the issue with the potential for this to be misused, I don’t think it is currently in Australia.

But back to that ethicist, the one who is afeared of “designer babies”… he’s quoted at the end of the article:

Melbourne ethicist Nicholas Tonti-Filippini said he was concerned about the increasing discrimination against embryos and questioned the idea that people with such gene mutations had lives that were not worth living. He feared it would lead to more genetic profiling to work out other features, such as athleticism or intelligence.

”The more information you can get with PGD, the more decisions you can make and the more discriminatory you can get,” he said.

Please note the equation of “embryos” and “people” in the same sentence.  With that in mind, I did a quick search on Mr Tonti-Filippini to find out who he was, and in the 5 seconds that took I discovered that Mr Tonti-Filippini is a Professor at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, yes that’s right a Catholic institution.  So clearly someone who ascribes to the standard Catholic teachings on the beginning and ending of life.

Now I don’t think that Professor Tonti-Filippini hid his association with the John Paul II Institute, I just think that The Age didn’t consider that their readers deserved or wanted to know who they were approaching for “balance” in the article.

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  1. This article was in the Sydney Morning Herald as well and was a pretty big beat-up. Ten couples in four years hardly constitutes a “trend”. What could have been an interesting piece was turned into “DESIGNER BABIES FOR RICH PEOPLE!!!!!!!!”.