Designer babies: new prenatal test raises ethical concerns

If there was a simple blood test that could tell you the gender, height and eye-colour of your baby in the early stages of pregnancy, would you want to know?

Non-invasive prenatal testing is rapidly evolving and experts say emerging technology is enabling parents to screen for a lot more than they used to be able to.

Advances in prenatal testing aren’t going to yield “designer babies” just yet, but the genetic tests are already raising some ethical concerns about the information they could reveal.

According to Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law and science policy at the University of Alberta, emerging health technology allows parents to screen the entire genome of their fetus — even their sex — through a simple blood test from the pregnant woman.

“It’s a really remarkable advance,” Caulfield told CBC. “It’s a much safer, more straightforward way to do genetic screening.”

“You would have all the genetic information of this unborn individual at your fingerprints”

Currently the tests provide initial screening for genetic abnormalities, such as Down Syndrome, he says, and he doesn’t expect it to be used to cultivate the next Einstein, yet.



“Most traits like intelligence and athletic ability, for example, are very complex traits,” he notes. “We’re not going to simply select for them, but I think it invites a discussion about this kind of thing.”

The fact that the sex of a fetus can be determined much within the first few weeks of pregnancy has sparked another debate regarding sex selection.

And while there have been calls for bans on sex-selective abortions, Cauldfield cautions the ethics of the issue are complicated by other considerations.

“Can you really restrict the access women have to information about themselves, because that is really what it would be,” he asks.

“Are health care providers going to interrogate women … to find out why they’re having an abortion, which is a very complex and tough decision?”

Caulfield predicts discussion about the issue won’t be fade away soon and discussion is a positive thing.

“This is a technology that is here to stay … so we need to get a handle on it.”