‘Designer babies’ initiate debate over DNA control

Are you looking to test your genes and design your ideal baby? Well, you might just be in luck. A company named 23andMe received a U.S. patent near the beginning of October that allows them to use software to help their clients find out if they were to have a child, what key genetic traits that child might have. Until this patent, 23andMe was known simply for DNA testing that allowed people to better understand their health.

A key example of why one might want to use their test-your-genes kit can be seen on their website through a YouTube video of a client who found out she had celiac disease after seeing a variety of doctors for 15 years who couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The kit could thus be beneficial for discovering any potential health concerns.

However, the company is expanding with this patent and now has a “family traits inheritance calculator” which predicts a few traits that your theoretical child would have such as eye color and muscle performance based on how parental DNA would most likely combine (ScienceMag, “Company’s ‘Designer Baby’ Patent Divides Bioethicists”, 10.03.2013)

The company does point out that there is no guarantee that the predicted traits in a theoretical child will be the traits that occur in an actual child, but it does imply that there are certain lifestyle changes one can make to help better the odds of certain theoretical traits becoming real. Is this company about to eliminate the many flaws of people? This is certainly an uncomforting thought.

This patent has been in the works since 2008. Many believe that ethics may have been a large reason for why this patent was withheld for so long. Both a writer for Genetics in Medicine, Sigrid Sterckx, and the executive director for The Center for Genetics and Society, Marcy Darnovsky, have criticized 23andMe and have implied that this software is morally unacceptable.

To me, it sounds like they think something bad is about to happen and that parents may just go crazy trying to design ‘perfect’ children, or at least ‘better’ children, whatever that means.

I read about Nita Farahany’s experience with 23andMe and wasn’t sure if I was still as scared. A bioethicist of Duke University, Farahany, and her husband are clients of 23andMe. She found from the system about her theoretical child’s bitter taste perception, chance of being lactose intolerant, eye color, alcohol flush reaction, and a few other traits. Simply put, she says she did this for pure entertainment value.

At this time she has no children, but she points out that while this system is risky in terms of the accuracy of its predictions, it is important for people to understand their genomes. It’s imperative to have access to information about themselves, especially pertaining to their health.

Personally, I agree with her… about her personal health. To predict if her child may or may not have a bitter taste perception. I don’t see the necessity of it. I think the real issue here is why would one really want to get the tests through 23andMe done.

In several medical tests, it is not always possible to gain accurate information, such as using 23andMe or other medical tests to see if your child might contract a life-threatening disease from you, such as HIV. And while yes, I know these tests are not very accurate, I still see it most justifiable to test to see if your child is likely to have HIV than to test to see if your child is going to have a bitter taste perception. But then again, I suppose to each their own. This software is legal and people are taking advantage.

I was talking with fellow classmate, and she asked me if I had ever seen the movie Gattaca, and indeed I had. In that futuristic movie, every one is essentially perfect due to being able to create the perfect kids. She pointed out that with this new 23andMe technology, the only place to go with it is to expand on it. So what exactly does this mean for 10 years from now? Am I going to be able to determine everything about my child before they are even conceived? I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.


—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.


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