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Posted on February 12, 2009 at 4:02 PM

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that a Los Angeles fertility clinic is offering parents the capacity to choose the traits of their child to allow them to make, um, “The Perfect Baby.”


The WSJ article, titled “A Baby, Please. Blond, Freckles — Hold the Colic”, describes precisely what McGee predicted in 1997, yes more than 10 years ago, parents would want to be able to do, what he calls the “under the hood” phenomenon. The idea that while parents are screening embryos for genetic diseases, they will also have the ability to select for gender or other traits, like eye and hair color. And having that ability, they will go ahead and tinker with the traits of their baby while they are “under the hood” as it were.

Later research has suggested that parents would not actually do this, and that what matters to them is that their child look like them and be like them and be related to them, much more than hair color or eye color, but this clearly not what this L.A. clinic is banking on.

They are banking on parents who have the “under the hood” urge. And the verdict would appear to be out in the reproductive community as to whether this tinkering is morally acceptable. In the WSJ article, the fertility clinic’s physician described it as “cosmetic medicine”–I suppose akin to preemptive plastic surgery or color contacts.

“Why have your child have to be altered later in life when he or she is an adult and could choose is it for him or her self when you can do it right now at the six-cell stage?” There’s a slogan I bet they can use.

Fundamentally, selecting traits of your unborn child has no real problems with it–if we are talking about the right kind of traits. If you’ve always wanted a son, or a brown eyed girl, who am I to tell you, soon-to-be parent, that you can’t have that when the technology is there?

But if there were a way to select for athletic ability or intelligence, then we enter a whole new world. Not only would there be a serious expectations game placed on a child, but also we don’t know whether clinics would simply be selling something they cannot deliver since, as we know, intelligence is not entirely genetic.

The simple argument, of course, is to say that all tinkering under the hood is bad. But perhaps there are some fine lines here that can be drawn. In any case, McGee predicted it a little more than 10 years ago that parents would want to do it. At least we know for sure that doctors do and they wouldn’t want to if there weren’t demand from prospective parents.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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