Ethics and genetic testing

Should we engineer our babies?

Genetic testing is allowing us to determine more and more information about the health and characteristics of our babies while they are still in their mothers' wombs. With this heightened level of awareness and power, we have to ask ourselves some pretty tough ethical questions:

  • Can we cure deafness or Down Syndrome through testing? Should we?
  • Is not having babies with a known trait an ethical way to eliminate that trait in our population?
  • Should we be able to select for "positive" traits or select the sex of our babies?

I attended an interesting film and discussion at the Bell Museum last week that focused on many of these issues.

Who's Afraid of Designer Babies? is a documentary mostly following several Australian families grappling with a wide array of genetic issues, from crippling genetic illnesses in their children to more frivolous interest in selecting the sex of their children.

While the discussion was very intelligent and not overly polarized I can say that we were far from a consensus on many of these issues. These are complex issues that we will have to keep hashing out as the technology and social mores change. Haven't formed an opinion yet? Read below for more information.

Resources and Links

Genetic Testing & Screening at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics - This is a great resource on the basic questions of ethics that come up around genetic testing.

Genetics and Public Policy Center - "The Genetics and Public Policy Center is a source of accurate and trusted information about public policy related to human genetic technologies and is supported at the Berman Bioethics Institute of Johns Hopkins University by The Pew Charitable Trusts." This group does allot of work in assessing public opinion on these issues.

The US President's Council on Bioethics - This group advises the president on the science and ethical issues behind policy and regulation of biological activities. In the recent past this group has taken a more conservative focus, with President Bush firing several of the more liberal members of the group who actively criticized his position on Stem-cells.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

A recent study shows that transfer of a single embryo to the womb in older women is just as likely to result in a pregnancy and live birth as it is in younger women.

This is good news, since women will have to go through fewer cycles of ovarian stimulation to harvest eggs, and because a multiple pregnancy is much riskier, for mother and babies, than a singleton pregnancy.

But the ethically sticky bit is that the best results are achieved with "top-quality embryos."

Even under the best circumstances, in vitro fertilization produces more embryos than can be safely implanted. So what do we do with the "leftovers"? And what determines "top-quality"?

posted on Mon, 06/05/2006 - 12:42pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think genetic testing should be up to the family who wants either specifically a boy or a girl. But cont. w/ genetic testing anyway. Thank you.

posted on Fri, 09/29/2006 - 9:26am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Ethics Committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has published their official position on the use of PGD to achieve "family balancing"--and they're not in favor of it.

"The Committee on Ethics supports the practice of offering patients procedures for the purpose of preventing serious sex-linked genetic diseases. However, the committee opposes meeting requests for sex selection for personal and family reasons, including family balancing, because of the concern that such requests may ultimately support sexist practices."

This opinion is consistent with those of other expert groups, including the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development and Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority Code of Practice.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine also opposes the use of PGD for non-medical purposes, although they feel that pre-fertilization techniques such as sperm sorting--if proven safe and effective--would be ethically acceptable.

The ACOG statement makes no mention of pre-fertilization techniques, but it does say:

"Even when sex selection is requested for nonsexist reasons, the very idea of preferring a child of a particular sex may be interpreted as condoning sexist values and, hence, create a climate in which sex discrimination can more easily flourish."

What do you think? In non-medical situations, is it ethical to use pre-fertilization techniques to conceive a child of a particular sex?

posted on Thu, 02/01/2007 - 11:02am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Here's a new article on the subject ("Girl or Boy? As Fertility Technology Advances, So Does An Ethical Debate") from the New York Times.

One of the most provocative parts of the article:

"John A. Robertson, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Texas, said: 'The distinction between doing it for so-called family balancing or gender variety would be a useful line to draw at this stage of the debate, just as maybe a practice guideline, and let’s just see how it works out.'

In the long run, Mr. Robertson said, he doubted that enough Americans would use genetic tests to skew the sex balance in the population, and he pointed out that so far, sperm sorting was more successful at producing girls than boys.

He concluded, 'I think this will slowly get clarified, and people will see it’s not as big a deal as they think.'"

posted on Tue, 02/06/2007 - 8:57pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I teach grade 7 science at Byrd Middle School in Richmond, Va. My students recently finished the unit on genetics and I would love to have them debate the question of rather or not genetic test results should be made public. I have just recently developed an interest in blogs and have yet to receive any real training. But it is a goal to have my students commenting back and forth in this debate.
Your website will be a great help to my students. Perhaps you will be hearing from some of them!
Thanks for the great info and any suggestions you have will be greatly appreciated.
Susan Mallon
Harry F. Byrd Middle School
Richmond, VA

posted on Mon, 02/26/2007 - 8:59am
Nicole's picture
Nicole says:


I am also a seventh grade teacher in San Diego and we are starting our annual genetics debates where students are grouped into debate teams. I would love it if my students could maybe videoconference with your students about what they learned and what they think now. I have been trying to give my students an opportunity like this all year and I think we are definitely on the same page!

I hope to hear from you.


posted on Mon, 04/30/2007 - 6:42pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I am doing a case study is genetic testing ethically right? what do you think, because i am stuck i cant find much stuff about it on the web so im hoing you can help meif so email me or post a comment thanks bye.

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 7:24am
Amorphis's picture
Amorphis says:

How can you all take this trash? they spoon feed you all this garbage and you "eat" the faulty information that is served on a silver platter! of course i not being biased, it is nice to have knowledge about your unborn baby, like eye/ hair color and sex, but i strongly suggest that it is up to nature do decide what your baby is going to be like. Not the parents. i close with the quote "one perfect stranger is worth one million conversations, but its up to you to talk". now, how can you have a conversation with a baby that was aborted for blue eyes and blond hair?

posted on Tue, 04/10/2007 - 3:28pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Well, you have a valid point, and many people share your perspective. I do, to a point.

I didn't want any knowledge about MY unborn babies except a reasonable expectation of health.

However, if I had a history of a fatal, sex-linked disease in my family, and I really didn't want to adopt, I think I would consider preimplantation genetic diagnosis to screen for that disorder. I don't know if I'd go through with it, but I'd definitely consider it.

posted on Wed, 04/11/2007 - 11:33am
Asons's picture
Asons says:

Should science allow people to have the power to play god and decide who exactly is born with or without a disability?
There are children born with condition such as Cerebral Palsy that continue to live perfectly happy and well adjusted lives.

posted on Tue, 05/21/2013 - 5:37am

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