Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Made to Order (if you're lucky)

It appears that the first genetic supermarket has opened its doors, here in the United States, where an embryo bank in San Antonio, Texas is offering customizable embryos for infertile couples.

The clinic "allows couples to buy fresh embryos that fit their requirements but which have no biological link to either of them." Seems like a recipe for designer babies, no?

No.

While there's currently a "waiting list for Aryan children," what's going to happen when the first couple that requested a blond haired blue eyed child winds up with brown hair and green eyes on their hands? Let's all keep in mind that selecting gametes on the basis of the phenotypic traits exhibited by their originators provides no guarantee about the phenotypic expression of the offspring, especially for multifactorial traits (like hair color).

While this process may raise the odds that a couple that desires a child with a specific hair color will receive it, in reality this is like going to the produce section of Nozick's genetic supermarket only to find that everything is wrapped up in thick brown paper. Sure, you can separate the watermelon from the blueberries, but the apples and the oranges look an awful lot alike don't they?

People are bound to get their hackles up over the ethics of even trying to select traits in this matter, and it's a reproductive decision about which reasonable people are entitled to disagree. But try to remember that what's happening in Texas is no different, ultimately, than what's been going on (often unconsciously) since time immemorial: the pairing of physically similar males and females with the hope, but without any guarantee, that the offspring will resemble the parents.

[Update: Law professor John Robertson, guest blogging over at the AJoB blog, is also wondering what all the hubbub is about. Robertson points out that what's happening in San Antonio is just another example of gamete brokering, which is happening in various forms all over the country as we speak.]

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