A couple from the UK
October 15, 2001 6:20 AM   Subscribe

A couple from the UK have a beloved son who has leukemia, and who may need a marrow transplant to save his life. They are using in-vitro fertilization to select a fertilized egg which will be genetically similar enough to their son so that the resulting baby could be a marrow donor. Is it ethical to design a baby as a transplant donor, even to save the life of another child?
posted by Steven Den Beste (25 comments total)
Back when I was a graduate student in genetics, I taught a genetics lab class at Emory University. This was always one of the questions that sparked the most debate, the students were evenly split on their opinions of "designer babies." I was truly amazed how strong the student's feelings were on the subject, it was the only time the entire class joined the discussion.

As for myself, I believe that nature works as it does for a reason, to keep populations in check in order to maintain a healthy environment to support humans, as well as every other species. With modern medicine, agriculture and science we have already artificially tipped the scales in favor of humans... or at least humans who can afford it... and against the other species which inhabit this earth. IMHO, the parents are quite selfish, they are creating a second designer child in order to save a child which they love. I understand their reasoning, but how will the second child feel when he or she grows up to realize why he or she was brought in to this world? What will the parents do if their first child should pass away due to his disease regardless of the transplant?

Its my hope that parents such as these will consider all of the possible reprecussions before making such a choice.
posted by FullFrontalNerdity at 6:33 AM on October 15, 2001

This is no less unethical than the many crazy, ridiculous, thoughtless, or shallow reasons that cause people to create babies "naturally." Hell, at least this time there's a specific intent. You can bet that baby will be intensely loved.
posted by fleener at 6:35 AM on October 15, 2001

You can bet that baby will be intensely loved unless the transplant fails and the parents illogically blame the new baby, in their grief. Stranger things have happened, to be sure, than a bone marrow transplant failing to have the desired effect in treating leukemia. It's a nasty catch 22, either way.
posted by Dreama at 6:39 AM on October 15, 2001

how will the second child feel when he or she grows up to realize why he or she was brought in to this world?

As opposed to what? ... learning you were brought into this world because of:
  • Rape
  • Drive-in movie and a spacious car
  • Too much beer
  • Smoked weed
  • Condom failed (3% of the time)
  • Other birth control device failed
  • Parents were just plain stupid / no planning
posted by fleener at 6:39 AM on October 15, 2001

Similar to the Anissa Ayala case many years ago. The baby that was born, a girl named Marissa, was luckily an exact match, and Anissa had a successful bone marrow transplant. Marissa is aware of the story, and that she saved her sister's life, and seems quite content with her birth circumstances
posted by Oriole Adams at 6:40 AM on October 15, 2001

having watched alien4 last night i would say that they better be careful! they could be in for a tedious and increasingly pointless series of mis-adventures, culminating in ramming a space ship into earth in the distant future.
how old will the child have to be before the marrow can be extracted? do they only need stem cells/cells from the umbilical?
it all going a bit gattaca.
posted by asok at 7:01 AM on October 15, 2001

> Is it ethical to design a baby as a transplant donor, even
> to save the life of another child?

No. It is monstrous. One step beyond this is designing babies whose only function in life will be to grow organs for harvesting.

Don't bother to say "But no one would ever do that! Whatever we have the knowledge and power to do, somebody is going to do. If any significant number of people benefit from a horror, rationalizations will be made up and believed and defended with fury.
posted by jfuller at 7:08 AM on October 15, 2001

Of course, jfuller, we're not talking about "one step beyond that".
posted by jpoulos at 7:16 AM on October 15, 2001

I find the concept generally disteful myself (due to the reasons FullFrontalNerdity listed in his second paragraph), but I think one question that would help me look at the situation more objectively is this: Were the parents planning on having more children prior to their daughter's being diagnosed with Leukemia? If so, I can take more of a "now is as good a time as any and I suppose you might as well make her a compatable donor while you're at it" kind of view. If not, then I think they are being irresponsible by creating a second child.

(And for the record, I think about 85% of conception is irresponsible, what with dwindling world resources and all.)
posted by jennyb at 7:17 AM on October 15, 2001

>One step beyond this is designing babies
>whose only function in life will be to grow
>organs for harvesting.

By that logic we should never do anything because any action can be taken too far. Whoops, better not let people fly in planes because a terrorist could hijack one and fly it into a building. Oh wait, that worse case scenario happened Sept. 11 and people are still flying in planes. Huh. That' weird. No one is suggesting we discontinue travel by air. We must all be insane.
posted by fleener at 7:18 AM on October 15, 2001

If my son became sick, I would stop at nothing to help him. I don't know of any parents that wouldn't do the same for their child. How about yours?

And I would love the new child just as much. Why would the child feel bad about the reasons for his conception? As opposed to "well, we meant to stop at one, you were an accident".
posted by groundhog at 7:28 AM on October 15, 2001

jfuller, taking bone marrow, which regenerates, is very different than taking an organ, which will not. You're saying because we are willing to do something with no real lasting effect on a person, we're also willing to mutilate them, and possibly kill them for organs. Doesn't really jibe with me.
posted by Doug at 7:29 AM on October 15, 2001

Good practice is good PR. This is for the good and helps promote a valuable technology.
posted by melgx at 7:29 AM on October 15, 2001

If we (the good people of earth) think that this should not be done what right do we have to enforce this view?

Laws would just lead to a bunch of back-alley designer babies.
posted by Mick at 7:53 AM on October 15, 2001

I think it, IMHO, really depends on whether the couples were planning on having additional children in the first place. Which, I guess is a question only the people themselves can answer. If you were already planning on having another child, and one you already have happens to have a condition like this, it seems okay to see if you can create a donor, in the case of marrow transplants, as opposed to organs which, I think, is a different can of worms. However, if you were planning on one and decide to have a second solely because of something like this, then I have serious problems with that situation.
posted by srw12 at 7:55 AM on October 15, 2001

too bad this isn't real.
posted by quonsar at 8:02 AM on October 15, 2001

>if you were planning on one and decide to have a
>second solely because of something like this, then I
>have serious problems with that situation.

It's no different than other reasons people re-decide to have another child. For example, a mother who is suffering from "empty nest syndrome" (all children have grown up and left home). Oh, wait, something is different. The couple in this story would also be saving the life of their 4-year-old son. Gosh, that is selfish and wrong.
posted by fleener at 8:28 AM on October 15, 2001

while i'm sure we could all go on and on about this interesting topic, i would like to say that hopefully all of this posturing and argument will be obsoleted by our efforts to grow organs from stem cells (or via other techniques), and i won't get into it for that purpose. designer babies for the purpose of organ harvesting has no likely future, in my mind.

designer babies of the first order -- babies you want to have primarily to have a child, not necessarily for organ transplant -- are more interesting. is it ethical to design a child to have a particular eye color, hair color, or body frame? is it ethical to prevent a child who has the capacity for some sort of mental disorder or genetic mutation (ala Down Syndrome)? keep in mind that people are not born depressed (in the case of depression only, as far as i am able to confirm); in that case, some trauma would have to trigger that illness in them, and it's quite possible that someone with the capacity to suffer from clinical depression will never have to endure it in their lifetime.

i don't know many answers, but i bet some of you can think of a few.
posted by moz at 8:31 AM on October 15, 2001

this article by lisa belkin in the new york times magazine offers a very thoughtful analysis and a look at the lives of two families who have gone through this difficult choice.
posted by judith at 9:05 AM on October 15, 2001

Well, I was the product of a pretty unhappy marriage. If my mom hadn't married my dad, she could have gotten out of a lot of hassle, and probably had a much nicer life.

But on the other hand, I wouldn't exist.

I certainly don't mind.

As others mentioned, there are lots of reasons that people come into existence, and a 'not well planned into a loving nuclear family' one is no hindrance to happiness. And in fact this is a well planned birth into a nuclear family.

Those two kids will grow up knowing that if not for the other, they wouldn't be there. That seems like a reason for a pretty close bond, I'd imagine they'd have a pretty good relationship

And it's not like finding out you came into existence in less then optimal circumstances is a major psychological trauma
posted by delmoi at 12:02 PM on October 15, 2001

ethics schmethics

The human race is finally gaining some control over our biology, stealing the holy fire. This is a natural corollary of being a technological civilization. I, for one, embrace it.

Clone on!
posted by signal at 12:29 PM on October 15, 2001

With modern medicine, agriculture and science we have already artificially tipped the scales in favor of humans

Why are human endeavors "artificial"? Beavers build dams -- is that artificial? Viruses steal genes from other life forms -- is that artificial? Potatoes emit poison gas from their roots to maintain living space -- is that artificial?

Humans may act stupidly, but that doesn't imply the acts are unnatural.
posted by joaquim at 1:17 PM on October 15, 2001

joaquim: Well said. It's a particularly pervasive form of hubris to assume that mankind is somehow apart from nature, or the environment or the ecology. I see it as an extension of the hard-to-dispell beliefs which place humankind in the center of the universe, time or the attentions of the gods.

cave canum
posted by signal at 1:55 PM on October 15, 2001

Does anyone here take medication essential for saving their life? Why not let nature take its course? Why not roll over and die?

Of course, very few people willingly choose that option. Humankind has always been meddling with nature. It always will. We don't hear many people complaining about the increased life expectancy in the western world do we?

Do you oppose abortion but support capital punishment?

Do you oppose terrorism but support a military campaign which has clearly affected the lives (and deaths) of a poverty-striken population?

Come to your own conclusions, but don't have the arrogance to make people live their life your way.

Just remember thousands of animals probably died to feed you and provide you with safe medication. Don't be a vegetarian who wears leather shoes.
posted by skinsuit at 4:37 PM on October 15, 2001

speaking as someone who's an organ donor AND had a relative die of leukemia at a very young age(12, he would have been 34 this year). I see very little wrong with this, as long as the parents were going to have more children anyway.

The babies-as-spare-parts scenario is disgusting, and why stem cell research is so very important.

and the nature-boy/girl argument is fine and good until YOU'RE faced with a decision.
posted by tj at 11:22 AM on October 16, 2001

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