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Should You Worry about 23andMe Patenting "Designer Babies"?

Bioethicists are outraged by 23andMe’s patent on predicting traits in children. Should you be too?

Last week, consumer genetics company 23andMe was granted a U.S. patent for a method of predicting, from parents’ DNA, the likelihood that their baby would have certain traits. The patent describes how the tool could be used in fertility clinics to choose traits desired by prospective parents, although 23andMe says it has no such plans.

In an editorial published today in Genetics in Medicine, a group of bioethicists question the morality of the method in the patent, which many are calling a designer baby system. On Wednesday, the Center for Genetics and Society called on 23andMe to abstain from offering any product based on this patent and to use its patent to prevent others from doing so.

That all may be jumping the gun a bit. The system cannot guarantee any traits in a child; it can only predict the likelihood of traits and, if combined with reproductive technologies, help improve the odds of desired traits. Also, the scientific community does not yet fully understand the genetic basis for many traits, like intelligence, creativity, or even height. As Wired reports:

Most of what people want most to understand, to give or avoid giving to their children—intelligence, character, freedom from chronic disease—is extraordinarily complicated … Even for traits like height, which are relatively straightforward and well-studied, scientists can now account less than half the role played by genetics.

According to 23andMe, the patent relates to a tool currently available to customers on the company’s website. This tool allows users to see the likelihood of different traits in a child they might have with another 23andMe customer who has shared his or her online profile. Currently, the tool lets users predict the odds of six traits in a child: alcohol flush reaction, muscle performance (sprinter vs. endurance athlete), eye color, lactose tolerance, the ability to taste a bitter compound in foods, and, err, earwax consistency.

The patent, however, also covers using the tool in fertility clinics, where “the donor selection device performs inheritance calculations pertaining to the phenotypes of interest and identifies one or more preferred donors for the recipient.” And while 23andMe says it has no plans to actually offer this service, some genetics analysis companies already provide similar services to screen for inherited diseases (see “A Genetic Matchmaking Movie Isn’t So Far-Fetched”).

Genetic screening technology clearly has the potential to prevent devastating diseases in children. But is that where society should draw the line? “My main concern is that the examples [in the patent] indicate that they are talking about both disease-related and non-disease-related traits,” says Sigrid Sterckx of the Bioethics Institute of Ghent University in Belgium. This kind of thinking promotes a “checklist” approach to thinking about a potential mate and a child, she says: “Promoting this attitude that human beings, whether a mate or a child, have to meet a number of specific criteria in order to be acceptable or desirable as a mate or child is not a very helpful view of human relationships.”

While the controversy over the patent may be overblown, it’s good to start having these conversation. Research groups around the world are working to understand the genetic basis of traits with complex underpinnings, so it may not be long before we can predict all sorts of desirable traits our hypothetical children might have.