From hair colour to athletic ability, we’ll soon be able to cherry-pick the looks and characteristics of our offspring. But would you?
The topic of babies throws up a thousand questions. Just how will a screaming toddler affect my ascent up the career ladder? Will squabbling over nappies and the downright inequality of breastfeeding signal the end of romance, forever? Will my finances take a dent from which they will never recover? Do I even really want one? After all, only half of us Generation X-ers will actually have a child. But once the answers to those big questions get resolved – or at least shelved – quieter anxieties emerge, which are less socially acceptable and definitely more superficial.
“When I was expecting my son, we joked that we didn’t want him to have freckles or be a Liverpool fan,” says Chrissie, 36, a graphic designer from London. “But we also didn’t want him to get my ears. Unfortunately, after 72 hours in labour and an emergency caesarean the first words from my husband were ‘Oh great, he’s got your ears.’” “My worry was my kids would inherit my terrible vision – I’d have done anything to stop them being the only child in the class to wear glasses,” says Becky, 31, a PR from Nottingham. Other mums turn to the internet to express their thoughts, “Is it shallow not to want an ugly child? I’m worried that the family will pay less attention to her if she’s ugly?” says one post on a pregnancy forum. “He looks exactly like his brother – I’m so disappointed,” says another expectant mother after seeing her baby on a 4D scan.
It’s not simply aesthetics we consider for our future child. There are those who can only imagine having a boy; those who hope their children inherit their partner’s aptitude for maths; or pray it arrives without their raging temper. These hopes and worries seem trivial compared to the physical health of your child, but it’s impossible to silence the inner voice wanting your child to be, well, ‘perfect’.
Unsurprisingly, a potential boom industry is waiting in the wings of reproductive technology, eager to tap into a market of well-intentioned parents. Within a decade or two, it may be possible to screen babies for an enormous range of attributes, such as how tall they’re likely to be, what body type they will have, their hair and eye colour, what sorts of illnesses they will be naturally resistant to, and even, conceivably, their IQ and personality type. If gene therapy lives up to its promise, parents may be able to go beyond eliminating undesirable traits and start inserting the genes they do want – possibly even genes that have been crafted in a lab. The 21st century may well see parents going to fertility clinics and choosing from a list of optional extras. “It’s the ultimate shopping experience: designing your baby,” says biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin, who regularly speaks out against designer babies. “In a society used to cosmetic surgery this is not a big step.”
Sound terrifying? Maybe, but there’s no denying that while none of us are perfect, we want our children to be. Indeed, in a study by the New York University School of Medicine, 10% of parents said they would approve of genetic testing to ensure their child was athletic, 10% would test for height and 13% for superior intelligence. New scanning technology has been accused of fuelling the fears and demands of expectant mothers. Often described as ‘baby bonding’ scans, 4D enhanced images are sold by screening companies ostensibly as a means to ‘connect with’ your unborn child before birth. In reality, these images send many panicking mothers to pregnancy forums, seeking reassurance that noses always look bigger on screen. One Chinese father who felt his newborn daughter was less attractive than he’d hoped – divorced and sued his wife when he found out she’d had plastic surgery to look better and not told him.
It's a basic evolutionary drive to want your children to succeed and survive
But it seems many women will do all they can to ‘improve’ their babies’ chances before they’re even born. From playing music to babies in the womb (music can apparently affect your baby’s fetal development thus improving their future academic skills according to a recent study) to knocking back handfuls of omega 3 (proven in some studies to improve your baby’s intelligence) and sticking to a strictly organic diet (proven to improve a baby’s attention span), increasing numbers of women are taking a multitude of approaches. Why do we want a perfect baby so badly? Actually, it’s part of our innate biology.
THE BEAUTIFUL TRUTH
“It’s a basic evolutionary drive to want your children to succeed and survive,” explains Oxford University professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. “I’d find it more surprising if people didn’t care if their baby was healthy, attractive or intelligent as they are traits that increase chance of survival.” You may scoff at this, but the fact is good-looking babies are treated better than those who are less attractive. When researchers at the University of Texas studied maternal behaviour, they found mothers whose babies had been judged as attractive (by a team of outsiders) were actually more affectionate toward their children, spent more time playing with them and were less distracted by other people while interacting with them. Past research has also shown parents are more likely to punish a child severely if they aren’t traditionally attractive. So when you hear that guilty voice whispering that you really hope he doesn’t have your ears, it’s just nature’s way of trying to ensure your baby gets a head start in life.
There’s also something called the Theory of Parental Investment to consider – bringing up a child takes a lot of time, effort, energy and biological resources, so you’re genetically programmed to attempt to get the best one you can. Add this to another issue called Lifetime Reproductive Success – while men can distribute sperm all over the show, women only have a finite fertile life and relatively limited amount of times they can get pregnant – and again, it’s clear to see why women especially want to produce the best version of a child that they can. In fact, studies looking into what makes parents pick particular children for adoption has found that men tend to choose children who genetically resemble them, while women pick those who look attractive or give off signs of health. Scientists believe that this is all to do with the fact that if a child looks like them, men can be more certain that they fathered the child. The logical understanding that a child is adopted isn’t enough to overrule a man’s instinctive attraction to a child that physically resembles him.
We may be right to long for a specific genetic combination. New research shows that what a person looks like does have an effect on their future success. A recent study at Harvard University found that people with blue eyes tend to be more intelligent and gain more qualifications whereas those with brown eyes have better reaction times, making them better at activities such as football and hockey. And another found than blondes earn £600 more than their brunette colleagues.
Scientifically, I could give someone a baby with the eye colour they desire, but ethically I can't do that
But your desire for perfection starts before you take the first steps on the road to conception. Subconsciously we choose partners that ensure our child has the best start in life. You might think that you went for your partner for his sense of humour, but in fact it’s a little group of genes called the major histocompatibility complex that sets your heart aflutter. These encode a set of proteins that determine the strength and profile of your immune system. When they meet the bacteria on your skin, they trigger a subtle form of body odour. According to Swiss studies, women are generally attracted to men whose odour determines that their immune system is fundamentally different to their own – thus increasing the fact that their child would inherit a stronger set of genes. Studies into the traits people look for in partners have also found when it comes to picking a mate, we tend to rate qualities we think we score strongly on ourselves as less important than those we think we lack – perhaps subconsciously thinking that when it comes to having children this will give the best chance of our baby getting the best of both worlds.
But while all the above issues are innate evolutionary drives, some experts believe our desire for perfect offspring – be that creating a child that’s musically gifted or one that’s reading before the age of two – is also psychological. For starters, every parent wants their child to be happy – whatever that means to them. If you were picked on all your life because you carried a little extra weight it’s not stupid to want to avoid that for seemingly the most important person in your life. But it’s also a state of society. “Parents have always wanted the best for their children, but that’s now reached megalomaniacal proportions. We are so sure that if we’re not seen to be pushing our children to be the best they can be, other parents are going to judge us,” says Professor Bryan Caplan, author of Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids. “In fact, most parents are so busy worrying about how their own behaviour might be perceived they’re not actually looking at what anyone else is doing.” He therefore suggests that we forget all that competitive parenting ‘nonsense’ and adopt a style of serenity parenting (where kids do more of what they want to do and we stop forcing our own desires upon them). “To be honest, the long-term outcome of your child’s health and wellbeing is not down to you – it’s down to how they behave and their genes.”
QUESTION OF ETHICS
Ah yes, back to genetics – while the perfectionism backlash may be beginning in psychological circles, in medical ones it advances ever faster. In the past, efforts to create a perfect child have been slightly haphazard – a first effort, Repository for Germinal Choice (which closed in 1999) used sperm donated by geniuses in an attempt to produce clever kids. Of the 217 born, only a handful showed any kind of promise. In 2007, the first British parents paid £9,000 to the (now defunct) Texas based Abraham Centre of Life which created made-to-order embryos from egg and sperm donors (you could choose the race, education, hair, eye colour and personality of the ‘parents’). The couple wouldn’t be identified so there’s no way to tell if they got what they wanted. Even if you cut your odds by selecting the best genes and combine them in a test tube, there’s no way to guarantee that your child will end up with the characteristics you’d like.
However, a technique called Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) leaves nothing to chance. Women undergo IVF, eggs are fertilised. Then the embryos are screened to see which genes they carry, and only those that conform to the parents’ desire need be implanted. This, according to experts is the future of making the perfect baby. “Scientifically, a woman could walk into my clinic today and I could give her a baby of the gender she desires, that I could guarantee didn’t have the genes for a host of diseases, and in certain groups, with the eye colour the parents wanted,” says Dr Jeffrey Steinberg from California’s Fertility Institutes. “The problem is ethically I can’t do all those things.”
It might sound a bit Orwellian but in some communities, like orthodox Jews who carry an increased risk of diseases like Tay Sachs, screening is common
However, when Dr Steinberg announced in 2009 that he was going to offer eye colour screening in his clinic, “we had 25,000 emails from parents wanting the procedure – and just as many emails from people who were appalled,” he told us. Of those opposed to the procedure it was the Vatican who persuaded Dr Steinberg he might want to think carefully about what he was suggesting – as a result, eye colour screening has been put on hold until the attitudes catch up with the science. In the UK, ethics mean we can legally only use PGD to help parents choose a baby’s gender for the purpose of avoiding genetic diseases – such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which only affects boys. Or to avoid passing on over 100 genetic conditions – including controversial, seemingly cosmetic issues like a squint. It is, however, not illegal to travel abroad to have PGD treatment in countries like the US, Cyprus or Russia where ‘family balancing’ is completely legal – although it can cost around £14,000.
Many doctors are opposed to PGD for “lifestyle” rather than medical reasons, but the market is robust. Princeton University biologist Lee Silver, whose book Remaking Eden addresses precisely these sorts of ethical issues, believes that within a few years, sex selection will cease to be much of an issue. He cites the example of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), the technique used to make “test-tube” babies. “When the world first learned about IVF two decades ago,” he says. “It was horrifying to most people, and most said that they wouldn’t use it even if they were infertile. But growing demand makes it socially acceptable.”
Nevertheless, we’re not quite at the stage where would-be mothers sit in front of a catalogue and design their own baby via a list of physical attributes. Aside from gender, the only traits that can now be identified at the earliest stages of development are about a dozen of the most serious genetic diseases. Gene therapy in embryos is at least a few years away. “I think the next step will be that the majority of parents will go through some kind of genetic screening so they know what health risks they might pass on to their child – and then be given the option to avoid it using techniques like PGD,” says leading geneticist David Goldstein. He believes that by 2020 this could also include screening for genes that merely increase the risk of diseases such as heart disease or diabetes, not just genes that cause a disease.
In fact, the UK government is currently discussing the possibility of a nationwide pre-pregnancy screening programme. Something potentially made easier by the development of a simple saliva test can screen for 3,000 different genetic ailments. It might sound a bit Orwellian but in some communities, like orthodox Jews who carry an increased risk of diseases like Tay Sachs, screening is common. People are tested for a selection of diseases at school and given a pin number. When they meet someone they want to marry they contact the testers and compare the pins. If both partners have genes for disease, they are advised not to marry.
The problem with things like intelligence and creativity is that we’re not sure what emphasising one gene will do to other elements of the personality
It’s also possible that less complex methods than PGD may play a role in correcting less healthy – or less desirable – traits. Earlier this month, doctors at Edinburgh University announced a trial giving the drug metformin to obese pregnant women. Using the drug to restrict levels of insulin to the fetus, it will reduce the risk of the mother giving birth to heavy babies with a propensity to obesity. The human growth hormone has also been given to pregnant women to increase the height of their child. Currently this is only used if children are going to be in the bottom one percentile for height (that’s under 4ft 11 for girls, 5ft 3 for boys). “But why shouldn’t all shorter-than-average children be able to seek treatment? And what about a child who wants to be taller so he can make the basketball team?” asks moralist Michael Sandel in his book, The Case Against Perfection. “I can definitely see more interventions occurring,” says Dr Steinberg. “When mums-to-be are given drugs to help ensure the fetus develops in the best possible way.” As for more ‘trivial’ traits. “I believe within 20 years, I could let parents choose their child’s hair colour, height range and skintone,” says Dr Steinberg
FINDING A BALANCE
Of course your choices are completely restricted to the genes you hold – genetically engineering children to possess traits their parents don’t have is still science fiction, as the risks of manipulating genes are nowhere near adequately understood. With skill traits, the closest is likely to be sports ability as the genes that influence it have been positively identified. Other more complex traits will come, but not for a while. “The problem with things like intelligence and creativity is that we’re not sure what emphasising one gene will do to other elements of the personality,” says Salvescu. “Increasing the creative potential of a child may make them more prone to mental health issues.” He does however say that once the technology is available to screen for things like intelligence, it’s our ‘moral obligation’ to use it as it is likely to benefit society as a whole. But we must not forget one other element in this type of selection – your child – as Dr Joyce Harper, reader in human genetics and embryology at University College London told us, “Even if a child has the genes for a trait like musical ability you can’t guarantee they’ll want to play the violin.” It seems that while science is very good at making humans better, the day where we can guarantee to make better humans is a long way off – but you need feel no guilt about hoping the baby has your chin.
Words: Helen Foster. Picture credits: Rex Features and Getty Images.