Some degree of concern has been elicited by a new patent from 23andMe, a consumer genetics company co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, the recently separated wife of Sergey Brin. The company offers DNA testing services for parts of the genome covering 960,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms. I had myself tested a few years back, sending them a saliva sample and receiving a detailed printout of parts of my DNA sequence, It covered a range of possible conditions and told me the percentages of those with similar genomes to mine who contracted those conditions. In effect, and crudely, it told me the odds of my suffering dozens of conditions including coronary heart disease, arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, and glaucoma, among many others.
The recent concern has been over a new service that can tell customers the chances that any baby born from another 23andMe customer will have of inheriting specific properties. A group of bioethicists have questioned the morality of this in Genetics in Medicine, and the Center for Genetics and Society has called on 23andMe not to proceed with a system that might allow parents to choose specific properties in their offspring. The words “designer babies” have been raised.
While the first aim of the new system is principally to allow parents to know the chances of any progeny developing specific diseases, the worry is that it might be taken further. Given the chance to avoid bringing a child into the world to face a life of suffering, many parents would take it. The technique could later be developed to increase the likelihood of non-disease traits being inherited, such as, for example, intelligence or musical or mathematical ability. I am relaxed about this, taking the view that when humans can take steps to improve their chances of having happy, healthy and yes, talented children, they should be free to do so. We long ago starting imposing our wishes on nature about the outcome and incidence of our lives and deaths.
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