Designer babies are newborns who have their genetic makeup pre-selected during the fetal development stage of life. The goal of this process is to eradicate specific defects which are present in the child’s genome. This process could also be useful in the improvement of specific genes, to ensure that they are present, or make additional changes to the building framework of the child to create specific results.
Although this is a process which was only in the worlds of science fiction before, in November 2018, a Chinese researcher claimed that he helped to make the world’s first babies with genetic editing. He Jiankui of Shenzhen stated that his work altered the embryos of seven couples during their fertility treatments. One pregnancy resulted from the work, which was intended to resist the possibility of a future infection with HIV.
Designer babies are outlawed in the United States and most of the world because of the risks involved to future generations. DNA changes created through this process could stay around for several generations or risk harming other genes.
The ethics of this process are up for debate now more than ever with this announcement, so here are the designer babies’ pros and cons to review.
List of the Pros of Designer Babies
1. It is a new way to battle diseases that are challenging and deadly.
Many of the worst diseases that humanity faces, such as cancer, are highly resistant to our current approach to treatment. Genetic editing provides a new avenue where future generations may be naturally immune to their impact. This development process could reduce human mutations and place an end to suffering. Cancer therapeutics involving genetic editing have already found to be useful using CRISPR to locate and kill offending cells.
2. It could extend the lifespan of humans.
We are already living longer as a species than ever before thanks to numerous advances in medical science. The processes of genetic editing, such as through the creation of designer babies, could help to push that time out even further. We face numerous diseases and illnesses that can take life prematurely. This science would help us find ways to reverse some of the most common reasons for cellular declines due to this issue. It is a chance to improve the quality and quantity of life as we know it.
3. It offers hope to families who might normally not be able to have children.
The current rate of birth defects in the United States is 1 in every 33 births. That number is even higher outside of the developed/industrialized world. We already use extensive genetic screening tests and processes to determine which couples are at risk of experiencing this situation. Birth defects continue to be the leading cause of newborn deaths, resulting in 20% of fatalities. The processes involved with genetic editing are not necessarily about choosing the eye or hair color of a child. It could be a way to repair these issues while a child is still in the fetal stage to give them a fighting chance at life.
4. It could be a way to treat genetic disordered in the general population.
Although 90% of human populations are born without the need to deal with a rare disease or genetic disorder, that still leaves 1 person out of 10 affected by a condition which can impact the quality of their life in some way. That means over 30 million people are potentially affected by a genetic disorder that the processes behind designer babies could prevent. There are more than 7,000 different diseases that we have identified so far that fit into this category, with over 80% of them having a potential cause in genetics. Early intervention could replace faulty cells or insert missing ones to provide a potential cure.
5. It may lead to new advancements in other areas of medical science.
Researchers using the CRISPR therapy method have found that it is possible to apply gene editing techniques outside of the womb with potential success. Alterations to the fertility of mice have already been successful, as have several new treatment options for some of today’s most serious diseases. Although the ethical elements of creating designer babies might make some people cringe, the willing treatment on the living through this process doesn’t hold the same implications.
6. It is a process that could lead to new advances in other scientific fields.
The development of designer babies would create new avenues of study for scientists in other areas that go beyond human health and wellness. These techniques could be used to help improve the health of plants and animals as well. It would become possible to create food resources which improve health by reinforcing the wellness of each structure. It would be a field where there would be multiple opportunities to support life in all of its forms.
7. It may speed up the pharmaceutical discovery process.
The use of CRISPR, along with other gene editing techniques associated with the creation of designer babies, offers the potential of speeding up the drug discovery process in other medical fields. It is a technology option which is surprisingly affordable considering its age, offers high levels of precision, and is relatively simple to use. Some manufacturers are already using this option in their research and development phase of product development. We may see more new drugs that work faster and better than ever before because of the science that exists behind this action.
8. It allows parents to set their own limits on the work being completed.
The discussions which involve designer babies often describe a “Wild West” type of medical situation where doctors are doing all of this genetic manipulation work without thinking of the consequences of their activities. The reality of this field of medicine would be that the parents of the child would be in control of each step and process. They would decide how far the work would go – or if it was even necessary in the first place. Until something changes, the government does not control the means of reproduction that people use.
9. It would give parents a chance to give their child something new.
The processes of genetic editing offer parents an opportunity to give their children something that they never had. It is a way to restore genetics, eliminate mitochondrial disorders, and accomplish additional benefits for future generations that were not possible before. We already find it acceptable for women to take higher levels of folate during a pregnancy to reduce the risks of autism and other developmental disorders. This scientific process would become another way to ensure that infants have a healthy start to life.
10. It could offer us a way to create more organ matches.
According to information published by UNOS, there is someone new added to the national transplant waiting list in the United States for an organ. About 20 people die every day on average while waiting for their transplant. Over 100,000 people are currently waiting on a kidney, followed by 14,000 for a liver, and then about 4,000 for a heart. The creation of designer babies could help us create a similar genetic profile in humanity that would make it easier to find matches should something go wrong with a person’s health.
If therapeutic cloning and genetic manipulation worked together, it could be possible to create organs that were an exact match to an individual, further reducing the chances of a rejection after a transplant procedure.
11. It would allow the gender of the child to be chosen.
Parents would be able to choose the gender of their child, along with specific favorable characteristics, when going through the process of creation for a designer baby. Although these issues might seem unethical to some, a family with three boys might want to have a girl – or vice-versa. This process would help to make that outcome a reality without relying on the gamble of natural genetics.
12. It could reduce issues with societal discrimination.
There are many challenging choices that families face when their child is born with a disability. Not only is there the concern about offering a lifetime of care, but there is also the worry about who will care for their children after they are gone. The scientific processes which can create designer babies would also make it possible to reduce the impact of discrimination in society, make it possible to provide better assistance, and create better outcomes for the average person.
13. It could reduce bullying.
Kids often become bullies because they lack confidence in their own life in some way. The process of creating designer babies would create a shift in this dynamic because it would allow each child to maximize their benefits. Although there would likely still be differences in intelligence, athletic ability, and other preferences, kids would also have the self-confidence in knowing that their abilities were enhanced to reinforce their own self-esteem.
List of the Cons of Designer Babies
1. It offers safety concerns which we cannot ignore.
Before we even address the ethics of creating designer babies, there is a safety factor which we must first address. When slight changes are made to the genetics of an individual, then there is an increased chance that unexpected results may occur. The efforts to create a child which is resilient to HIV infections could introduce new and even more dangerous diseases into the human race. There are concerns that genetic editing in the womb could lead to premature birth, stillbirth, or natural abortion as well – all of which are unthinkable results for the parents involved.
2. It creates an ethical dilemma for some individuals.
There are two ethical segments to consider here: one involves science, while the other involves faith, religion, or spirituality. Some would say that modifying human genomes to fit a specific profile (for any purpose) is unnatural. There is an approach in this disadvantage which would go as far as to say that tinkering with designer babies places humanity in the role of playing God. Even though this process could reduce or eliminate disease on our planet, there is a natural component that exists of a person falling ill and experiencing a premature death.
3. It would reduce the diversity of humanity.
This concern offers the potential of outweighing all of the other ones. When we begin to change the genetic profile of individuals before they are born, then we are setting the stage to limit the amount of genetic diversity that is available to us. The impact would be similar to what we would experience if human cloning were practiced during the stage of life potentiality as well. When there is a lack of diversity within human populations, the rate of disease and mutation increase exponentially.
We can already see this amongst the Ashkenazi Jewish population, where specific genetic disorders are more common than in the general population. Gaucher disease, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, familial dysautonomia, and spinal muscular atrophy are all high-risk elements brought about by a lack of diversity. Although genetic editing could theoretically help to treat these issues, it may create new ones in the future to worry about as well.
4. It could enhance the socioeconomic differences in society.
Genetic editing, just like any other medical tool, would be widely available in the population centers who could afford this work. Even if the processes are refined in such a way that it becomes possible to purchase these services without being wealthy, the majority of the world would still not be able to take advantage of this process. If you earn more than $32,400 per year, then you are in the global 1% of top income earners. You’d need to earn more than $420,000 per year to reach that level in just the United States.
5. It might only provide temporary relief from our health concerns.
If there is one thing that Mother Nature knows how to do well, it is to adapt to changing circumstances. We’ve only had effective antibiotics to treat infections for about a century, yet that has been enough time for some organisms to create a resistance against this treatment method. We might experience something similar when creating designer babies as well. The future of genetic manipulation does look promising on some levels, but it must be pointed out that antibiotics were once seen as the future answer to medical issues as well.
6. It could create a new social class of humans.
Not only is there a risk that designer babies would become available to only the wealthy, but it also carries a concern about how these “new” children would be perceived. Their genetic manipulation could make them stand apart from the rest of their peers. It could lead to the need to create specific standards of intelligence, sociability, creativity, or other wanted outcomes at birth. There is a very real possibility that the countries with the most access to this technology would continue to pull away in their standard of living compared to that of the developing world.
7. It offers no guarantee of future success.
Although we will not know the outcome of the gene editing work performed in China in 2018 for some time, it is possible to look at the data coming out of the research studies which are focused on genetic therapies. We have discovered that most treatments like these offer high levels of potential on paper, but it is not something that produces results in real-life situations. Most people who receive these treatments revert back to their previous state as soon as the therapy concludes. There is a real chance that designer babies would do the same thing.
8. It is a process which could encourage genetic doping.
If we get to a place where designer babies become an acceptable societal standard, then the existing population would potentially look for ways to help them reach the same levels of success as the first generation of genetically altered humans. This theoretic state is referred to as “genetic doping.” It would involve an individual undergoing gene modification procedures without a medical need to do so. This action could create more harm than good, and even expose humanity to a new set of unexpected diseases or outcomes.
9. It does not offer a guarantee of success.
The first clinical trials of genetic therapies occurred in the early 1990s. Although there was the occasional story of success from these efforts, there were also severe outcomes to consider as well. Treatments in France to cure boys diagnosed with X-linked SCID resulted in 40% of the children developing leukemia through the efforts. Similar stories follow other testing efforts into this field. That’s why we cannot look at designer babies through our current scientific lens without taking into account that we could be trading one condition for another.
10. It could be turned into a genetic bioweapon.
One of the biggest concerns that the creation of designer babies brings to our world is the information that would exist because of it. Individual genetic profiles could be stored in databases containing every relevant data point about the people created through this process. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listed genome editing as one of six potential threats for a weapon of mass destruction for this very reason. Imagine a weapon that could target the specific genetics of an individual, a family, or an ethnicity. We’ve already experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and issues with genocide. Do we need to worry about this issue too?
11. It could be a violation of the rights of the child.
If parents decide that creating a designer baby is what they want to do, then they are making core changes to the genetic makeup of that child without any choice to the outcome. This process creates a shift in the human potentiality of life in ways that might not be beneficial. There is the possibility that shifts in the emotional or mental health of the child could occur when attempting to address physical needs as well. Although there could be benefits in the ability of this science to reduce severe defects, the outcome does make it seem to some like the child is more of an experiment than a newborn.
12. It could harm the mother.
Making changes to the genetic profile of a child during the fetal stages creates a risk for the mother to consider. Even if the work is done outside of the womb before implantation, there is no way to predict how a shift in genetics would be treated by the mother’s immune system. It could create an outcome where the child is attacked by white blood cells, creating a response that could put her life in danger as well. Even if the outcome is a spontaneous abortion, there are complications that include fevers, hormonal problems, and thyroid disease which could develop in time.
13. It might change how the child grows.
When we add or subtract to the human genome to create a specific outcome, we are making a change in how that child will develop over time. This novel technology could take us into a new frontier of medicine that has people living well into their 100s. It might also be the first step toward eventual self-destruction. We cannot reverse this issue once the work is completed, so changing how a child grows will impact them over their entire lifetime.
These designer babies pros and cons indicate that we still have a long ways to go from a scientific viewpoint before this process will be accepted by human societies. China announced in January 2019 that they would be tightening the regulations of genetic engineering, which would impact the CRISPR technique as well. There may still be a future with this technology and technique to consider, but for now, the idea of tinkering with a person’s genetics is still frowned upon.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.