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New fertility bill provokes fears of 'designer babies'

Katy Sinclair

Progress Educational Trust

09 January 2008

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[BioNews, London] Commentators have warned that the UK's new Human Tissue and Embryology Bill, which will become law in 2008, could open the way for the first legal genetically modified babies.

The new Bill will allow the genetic modification of embryos up to 14 days old, although the law will not permit the modified embryos to be implanted into a woman's womb. Scientists hope that the new regulations will allow them to discover more about congenital disorders such as motor neurone disease, and potentially to develop ways of treating such disorders, or at the very least to reduce the number of babies born with incurable genetic disorders.

However, the Bill has been criticised by some for potentially allowing spurious manipulation of embryos, leading to parents creating designer babies, and turning human life into a commodity. David King, from the campaign group Human Genetics Alert, termed the decision to allow the manipulation of human embryos 'dangerous' and stated that 'traditionally, we see human beings as inviolable and endowed with rights - they must be accepted as they are. Genetic modification degrades human subjects into objects, to be designed according to parents' whim'.

Other experts have denied that the law will lead to any such explosion in designer babies, with Professor Lord Robert Winston accusing Dr King of 'pure scaremongering', and explaining that the technology needed to produce designer babies would be out of reach of scientists for a very long time, let alone being prohibited in a reproductive sense by the new legislation.

Meanwhile, Jackie Ballard, former Liberal Democrat MP and chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (RNID), has advocated that deaf couples be allowed to screen their embryos in order to pick a deaf child, rather than one with normal hearing, should they so wish.

The Bill has a clause that prohibits parents choosing an unhealthy embryo, if healthy embryos exist, and so deaf parents would not be allowed to deliberately select a deaf child. However, disability charities have argued that this is discriminatory, because while parents will be able to choose screened embryos that are free of disabilities, a baby could not be deliberately created with a disability. This particularly angers some deaf activists, because they argue that deafness is not a disability, but a cultural identity. Ms Ballard stated 'we would like to retain, as far as possible, parental choice, but it has to be in conjunction with a clinician so that people know exactly what they are choosing'.

Doctors are opposed to allowing parents to select deaf children, claiming that it is an abuse of medical technology. Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the Bridge Centre, an embryo screening clinic, said 'deafness is not a normal state, it is a disability. To deliberately create a deaf embryo would be contrary to the ethos of our society'.

© Copyright Progress Educational Trust

Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.

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Date Added: 09 January 2008   Date Updated: 09 January 2008
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