Designer Babies


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    Sex selection will undoubtedly raise knotty issues as well. Societies that value boys more highly than girls, including China and India, are already out of balance; this could tip the scales even further. Such an outcome is unlikely in the U.S., where surveys show that equal numbers of parents want girls as boys. But the same polls report that Americans believe an ideal family has a boy as the oldest child. Boys often end up being more assertive and more dominant than girls, as do firstborn children; skewing the population toward doubly dominant firstborns could make it even harder to rid society of gender-role stereotypes.

    The ethical issues raised by techniques emerging from the genetics labs are likely to be even more complex. What if parents can use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to avoid having kids with attention-deficit disorder, say, or those predestined to be short or dullwitted or predisposed to homosexuality? Will they feel pressure from friends and relations to do so? And will kids who are allowed to be born with these characteristics be made to feel even more like second-class citizens than they do now?

    Even thornier is the question of what kinds of genetic tinkering parents might be willing to elect to enhance already healthy children. What about using gene therapy to add genes for HIV resistance or longevity or a high IQ? What about enhancements that simply stave off psychological pain--giving a child an attractive face or a pleasing personality? No one is certain when these techniques will be available--and many professionals protest that they're not interested in perfecting them. "Yes, theoretically you could do such things," says Baylor University human-reproduction specialist Larry Lipshultz. "It's doable, but I don't know of anyone doing it."

    Sooner or later, however, someone will do it. In countries with national health services, such as Canada and Britain, it tends to be easier to dictate what sorts of genetic enhancement will be permitted and what will be forbidden. But in the U.S., despite the growth of managed care, there will always be people with enough money--or a high enough limit on their credit cards--to pay for what they want. "Typically," says Princeton's Silver, "medical researchers are moved by a desire to cure disease more effectively. Reprogenetics [a term Silver coined] is going to be driven by parents, or prospective parents, who want something for their children. It's the sort of demand that could explode."

    Silver even contemplates a scenario in which society splits into two camps, the "gen-rich" and the "gen-poor," those with and those without a designer genome. The prospect is disturbing, but trying to stop it might entail even more disturbing choices. "There may be problems," admits James Watson, whose co-discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 made all this possible. "But I don't believe we can let the government start dictating the decisions people make about what sorts of families they'll have."

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