There was a time when designer babies, genome modification and DIY DNA seemed like the stuff of sci-fi novels.
While we might not yet be at the point of choosing a blue-eyed, blonde bouncing baby, a trend for gender selection is growing both in the UK and the US with high profile celebrities admitting to the practice.
Controversial millionaire Joe Francis, creator of the deplorable ‘Girls Gone Wild’ franchise and close friend of Kim Kardashian, is expecting twins with his girlfriend Abbey Wilson and the couple have been open about their choice to use IVF not to help them conceive but to choose the sex of their babies.
"We both wanted girls and we wanted them to be healthy and free of genetic diseases so we chose to do IVF," Abbey told Us Weekly.
The process of gender selection, also known as “family balancing”, is currently banned here in the UK but the number of British women going abroad to choose the sex of their baby is increasing by 20 per cent year on year.
Hundreds of these use the services of California-based Dr. Daniel Potter, whose fertility clinic charges around £7600 to help parents ‘design’ their embryo so that it's not only their choice of gender but is free from certain genetic diseases.
In the US, 1 in 10 IVF cycles are specifically for gender selection and an overwhelming 80 per cent of prospective British parents opt for baby girls.
The process involves both eggs and sperm being taken from mother and father and artificially fertilised, the same as normal IVF.
Only the embryo of the desired sex is transferred to the uterus, the other embryos are frozen, donated or disposed of.
For a country where the right to have an abortion is constantly under threat of being repealed, it seems incongruous that cherry picking fertilised embryos is becoming increasingly common.
While the UK doesn’t show any sign of making gender selection legal, three-parent babies could be around as early as 2015.
Developed by British scientists, three-parent IVF involves DNA from three donors or ‘parents’ to create an embryo free from debilitating diseases such as muscular dystrophy.
Certain genetic diseases can be transmitted through mitochondrial DNA, which is strictly inherited from the mother.
This new process, which is currently illegal in the UK, takes the nucleus from the carrier ‘mother’ and places this inside the ‘disease-free’ cytoplasm of another egg, which has had its nucleus removed.
This 'double DNA' egg is then fertilised by the ‘father’ sperm, creating an embryo with three sets of DNA.
According to Dr. Peter Braude, former Head of the Department of Women’s Health at King’s College London, the restrictions put in place if three-parent IVF becomes legal mean that the practice will not be abused.
“It is true that genetic alteration of disease risk is an important step for society and should not be taken lightly.”
“However the proposed changes to the regulations ensure it will be limited to informed couples, who understand from sad personal experience the significant effects of their disease.”
The argument for preventing life-threatening diseases is not a tough one to get behind, however public opinion on choosing the gender of your unborn child is understandably split.
Asking the question, “Where will it stop?” no longer seems like the deluded over-reaction of frantic individuals but a very real question that as yet will go unanswered.
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