Key Facts – Embryo Eugenics

Introduction

Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD)

Sex Selection

Saviour Siblings


Introduction

Eugenics describes the concept of the improvement of man through “better breeding“.

Eugenic campaigns were witnessed in around the world in the early 20th century including in countries such as the USA, UK and, most notably, Germany.

Much of the debate surrounding present reproductive technologies such as PGD +/- HLA-typing surrounds the perceived risk of it enabling the creation of ‘designer babies and a subsequent resurgence of eugenic ideals and practices.

The ‘slippery slope’ argument surrounding such debate states that progressive relaxation of the medical model of present selection for serious genetic conditions would enable increased procreative autonomy and beneficence, until we would have no reason for rejecting the designer model and enabling a resurgence in eugenic beliefs.

Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis

Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) involves the removal and analysis of 1-2 cells from a 6-10 cell stage embryo that has been created in-vitro. Embryos that are free from a genetic condition can then be transferred to the uterus whilst those that are positive for the disorder can be allowed to expire or be donated to research.

The 2008 HFE Act allows the use of PGD to test for gene, chromosomal or mitochondrial abonormailities that could affect an embryo’s capacity of completing gestation or that could lead to it having a serious medical condition.

Examples of conditions presently tested for include cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and sex linked disorders such as hydrocephalus.

The Act has been met with some criticism due to its instructions that embros that are free from such disorders must not be preferred to those known to have tested negative for them. Opponents state that such instructions are discriminatory to people with such conditions; as well as having underlying eugenic connotations.

Arguments in favour of PGD include that it spares parents the agony of prenatal diagnosis and associated abortion, that it helps reduce spontaneous abortion in at risk embryos and that it can ensure that genetically at risk individuals are born without potentially life-threatening conditions.

Arguments against PGD claim that it could open the door to a designer babies society and/or a eugenically driven society.

Sex Selection

Sex selection is defined as “the choice of the gender of an embryo before fertilisation occurs, or to the identification of the gender of an already existing embryo”

Preconception sex selection or ‘sperm sorting’ involves the sorting of sperm according to whether they bear an ‘X’ or ‘Y’ chromosome. The sperm of the desired chromosome can then be used for conception of a baby of the desired sex.

Preimplantation sex selection involves the use if preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to determine the sex of an embryo prior to its implantation in the uterus.

The HFE Act 2008 states that sex of an embryo may be determined for purposes of sex selection:

In a case where there is a particular risk that any resulting child will have or develop –
(i) a gender-related serious physical or mental disability,
(ii) a gender-related serious illness, or
(iii) any other gender-related serious medical condition.

The Act also expressly states that sex selection is not to be permitted in any form for purely social reasons.

Arguments for and against sex selection are similar to those surrounding PGD. There are also concerns that it could feed gender discrimination and inbalances.

Saviour Siblings

The creation of a “saviour sibling” involves the selection of an embryo (via PGD with HLA-tissue typing) that, when born, could provide umbilical cord stem cells or tissue to an older sibling suffering from a serious medical condition that may be treated by such a donation.

The creation of saviour siblings will for the first time be legitimised and regulated under the new HFE Act 2008, due to become law as of October 2009.

The forthcoming regulations were formed following several high profile cases involving the practice; notably those of the Hashmis and the Whitakers.

Those in favour of allowing the creation of saviour siblings say that it could provide a source for treatment/cure for many families living with serious medical conditions.

Opponents to the practice state concerns over the welfare of children born as a result of the procedure; as well as the contribution that the practice could have towards a future designer babies society.