Designer babies: fact not fiction

Louise Brown is 33 years old, married with a kid, and works in a post office. All pretty standard stuff – except that she also happens to be the world’s first test tube baby.

The process that led to Louise’s birth, and the thousands of test tube babies that have followed her, is called in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and has changed the lives of thousands of couples who would otherwise be unable to have children. The doctors that invented IVF have won the Nobel prize for their ground-breaking discovery – but others believe they’re ‘playing God’ and that IVF is wrong. So what do you think?

Here are the facts. IVF is a pretty inefficient process, so doctors usually produce more than one embryo per couple in case one doesn’t survive. Unless the couple want to have 8 kids at once, this means that there are unwanted embryos left over, which are stored for a while and then thrown away. Is this creating life and then destroying it? Or is a ball of cells a life at all?

But the embryos don’t HAVE to be thrown away. They can be used to create human stem cells, which are used by scientists to try and find cures for loads of different diseases. Is this benefit enough to justify the ‘destruction’ of these embryos?

Another big issue is that doctors creating embryos for IVF are able to choose which ones they use. This is usually for health reasons, so that the embryos have no abnormalities which might risk their lives.
But scientists also know which bits of our DNA give us brown hair, or make us tall. If parents are allowed to check the health of their future children…what’s to stop them choosing whether their baby has blonde hair or blue eyes?

The fact is this: scientists have the power and the knowledge to create designer babies. Some people would argue they are already doing so. If parents are able to choose the characteristics of the children, where should we draw the line? The rules are not yet clear – you could be the one to help define them.

You can read the original article published by the Guardian newspaper on the day Louise Brown was born here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2011/jun/02/guardian190-test-tube-baby-1978

Or you can watch a video about Louise Brown’s birth and IVF here:
http://wellcometrust.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/wellcome-film-of-the-month-the-first-test-tube-baby-louise-brown-is-born-in-1978/

If you would like to work in a career relating to IVF and the designer baby debate, you could be:

• A reproduction scientist– to discuss the research, practice, policy and ethical issues with the patient before the treatment, and to then carry out the IVF procedure
• A midwife – supporting women and their partners before, during and after the birth of their baby
• A doctor – consulting with the patient and their partner to provide the best level of care for them during their IVF treatment
• An ethics board/committee member – considering and debating the methods, theories and problems that affect ethical issues in health care
• A science policy advisor – working for the government on new policy developments, making sure the public are informed of new changes
• A clinical embryologist – working to investigate the scientific area of infertility
• A stem cell biologist – carrying out scientific research on stem cells