Selecting the Perfect Baby:The Ethics of “Embryo Design”
by Julia Omarzu
Department of Psychology
Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa
The research team assembled quietly in the lab. There were some difficult decisions to be made today.
Kelly, a new research assistant, looked forward to the discussion. Privately, she hoped Dr. Wagner and
the rest of the team would agree to help the couple that had appealed to them.
“Good morning, everyone,” Dr. Wagner began the meeting. “We have a lot to talk about. I’ll summarize
this case for those of you who may not have had time to read the file. Larry and June Shannon have been
married six years. They have a four-year-old daughter named Sally who has been diagnosed with
Fanconi anemia. Sally was born without thumbs and with a hole in her heart. Shortly after her birth, she
began suffering symptoms related to impaired kidney function and digestion that have only increased in
severity. Fanconi anemia is a progressive disease that often results in physical abnormalities and a
compromised immune system. Sally needs a lot of special care and has already had several surgeries.
She can’t digest food normally or fight off infections as easily as a normal child would. If she doesn’t
receive a bone marrow
transplant, she will develop leukemia and die, most likely within the next three
to four years. Neither Larry nor June had any clue they were both carriers of this disease.”
“A frightening diagnosis,” said Kevin, a research technician.
“Difficult to live with, as well. Not only will they probably lose this child, they must be crushed about
the possibility of having another child with this illness,” commented Liz Schultz, the team’s postdoctoral
researcher in gynecology and fertility.
“Exactly their problem,” continued Dr. Wagner. “The Shannons are interested in having another child
and have approached us regarding pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). They are aware of the
risks and the odds of success. They are anxious to begin the process as soon as possible.”
“Kelly, you’re new to the team, so let me summarize the PGD process for you. It’s a three-step process,
with chances of failure and complications at each step. First, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) is performed.
Some of June’s ova would be removed and fertilized with Larry’s sperm outside of June’s womb. If this
procedure works, we should have several viable, fertilized embryos. Our second step is to perform
genetic analysis on the embryos, removing a cell from each and testing for the presence of the Fanconi
anemia genes. If we find embryos that are free of Fanconi’s, we can then perform the third step:
implanting the healthy embryos back into June’s uterus.”
“Wait a minute,” said Kelly. “How many embryos are we talking about? They just want one child, not a
Dr. Wagner laughed. “Yes, I know. But during the in-vitro fertilization and implantation processes, we
almost always have embryos that do not survive. There is only about a 23% chance of any implanted
embryo thriving. There is a better chance for a positive outcome when we remove and fertilize multiple
ova. In this particular case, the odds of a multiple pregnancy are very small, given the limitations on the
ova we will be able to implant.”
“OK, I know I don’t understand all of this. But how can Mrs. Shannon produce that many eggs all at the
same time?” asked Kelly. “She wouldn’t normally do that, would she?”
“No,” said Liz. “So before we even begin any of these procedures, June would have to take hormones to
increase the number of ova she releases. As Dr. Wagner said, there are risks involved with every step of
this procedure. Hormone therapy can have some side effects, including mood and cognitive effects.
Some women suffer physical complications as well, although this is relatively rare. There are some
studies that link hormone therapy to increased risks of ovarian cancer, although there is other research
that contradicts that.”
“Plus,” Dr. Wagner added, “along with the risks to June, there is no guarantee that the procedure will be
successful. Many couples must undergo the IVF procedure more than once before the implantation is
successful in producing a healthy, full-term baby. In this case, it will be even more complicated because
we cannot use all of the fertilized embryos but must limit ourselves only to those that are free of Fanconi
“But we’ve done several of these types of procedures with a pretty high rate of success,” said Kevin.
“Why should this one be different? You’ve screened the couple, right, and you said they’re aware of the
“Yes, but this case is very complicated.” Dr. Wagner sighed. “The Shannons have requested not only a
Fanconi-free child, but one that will be a perfect bone marrow
match for Sally. Sally’s illness may be
treated with a transplant of healthy cells into Sally’s bone marrow
. Because Fanconi’s patients are so
fragile, however, the donor’s cells have to be a near perfect match, and that’s hard to find. Siblings are
the best bet. In the meantime, Sally’s condition is deteriorating. The Shannons naturally want to give
Sally as many years of normal life as possible so they want to take aggressive action. They want to cure
Sally’s disease by planning and creating another child with specific genetic markers.”
“How would that work?” asked Kelly.
“You’ve heard of stem cell research?” began Liz. “Stem cells are special cells that can produce all the
different organs and tissues of the human body. They are found in embryos or fetuses, and are usually
obtained for research from embryos that die or are rejected in fertility procedures. That is the kind of
research that has been so politically controversial lately. But a less potent type of stem cell is also found
in adult humans and can also be obtained from umbilical cord blood. If we were to help the Shannons,
and the procedure was successful, the blood from their new baby’s umbilical cord could be used for
Sally’s bone marrow
transplant, resulting in no injury at all to the baby and a possible cure for the worst
symptoms of Sally’s illness.”
“The Shannons are suggesting that we perform the PGD procedure as we normally do, but select only
those embryos that are both free of Fanconi anemia, and are also a perfect match for Sally,” said Dr.
Wagner. “This presents some real ethical dilemmas for us. We have never tried this before. People have
had PGD done to detect and prevent a variety of illnesses in their children, just as we have done here
3 before. But what we are proposing now would be selecting for a specific combination of genetic traits, a
combination that will not benefit the planned child but will save an existing child. We will be selecting
an embryo and then using it essentially as a blood donor for its sibling. It will be umbilical cord blood,
which would be discarded anyway, but it’s still a controversial procedure. If we agree, it also means we
will be destroying embryos that are perfectly healthy, but are just not a match for Sally. I’m interested in
pursuing this, but these are serious issues to consider. Not the least of which is that we may have trouble
getting it approved. Before I run it past the review board, I want to know how you all feel about trying
“Well, I say go ahead with it. It will be a genetic breakthrough. In time, we’ll be able to prevent all kinds
of problems with this procedure. Why not start now?” urged Kevin. Another doctor on the team who had
remained silent nodded her head in agreement.
“I’m not sure yet how I feel about this,” said Liz. “I feel a little uncomfortable with the precedent this
might set. We’ll be opening the door to who knows what type of genetic selection. Do we want the
responsibility for that?” A couple of others on the team seemed to side with her.
“Yes,” said Kelly. “But think about the poor Shannons. And especially Sally. Does she deserve to suffer
just because we’re arguing about ethical problems of the future?”
“Well, it sounds like we all need to talk about this some more before we can reach a real consensus,” Dr
Wagner concluded. “I don’t want to start on a case this important without everyone’s agreement.”
Response Paper 1 Embryo Design
Instructions: Read “Selecting the Perfect Baby: The Ethics of Embryo Design”, and Address the following points in your response paper:
1. Introduce the topic.
2. Procedure for the Shannon’s. Imagine you are on the research team. Make arguments for and against the procedure/embryo design for the Shannon’s. (what is PGD?)
3. What is the difference between the selection of healthy embryos and the selection that the Shannon’s propose?
4. Is it ethical to select for traits that are non health related (why do you think yes, why no)
5. If we were to map everyone’s genetic structure, what effect would that have on society? Would there be discrimination against those with less appealing genetic traits or with hidden genetic problems? Where do you stand. Discuss.
6. Overall conclusion, what do you think the research team should do? What should the Shannon’s do?
REMEMBER: This response paper is worth 26 -points, and it looks at issues at hand, evaluates the issues and is to have a word count of 500 to 700 words excluding literature cited (The Word count is required at the bottom of your paper. If the word count is missing a 5 points will be deducted.) Your opinion on certain topics doesn’t matter for a grade, however, you must present your case coherently in which you build your arguments to support your ideas. The response paper will be graded and counted towards active learning exercises.
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