New York Times writes about “In Choosing a Sperm Donor, a Roll of the Genetic Dice”: recipients of sperm donation have found out the hard way that there is a risk of genetic disease affecting their children. In at least one case a donor with a clean bill of health and who had, according to the laboratory, been tested for genetic conditions. Unfortunately he turned out to be a carrier for cystic fibrosis like the mother, and the child suffered. Other cases of transmission of genetic conditions to multiple children from a single donor have appeared, suggesting a need to do something. Is there an ethical need for ensuring genetic testing in the case of sperm donation – or is the problem that some donors father many children?
By Charles Foster
There’s a significant association of PTSD symptoms with a particular allele, according to a recently published study from UCLA and Duke. Some of the ethical consequences are already being discussed. One consequence might be military. One might be able to detect and filter out PTSD-vulnerable recruits. Perhaps that’s a kindness. It would certainly seem militarily prudent. There might be legitimate qualms about creating a biologically callous warrior-class, but you’re not creating its components – you’re just collecting them together. You might not want to go to their parties, and you might wonder about the mutually brutalizing effect of corralling them in a barracks, but the exercise is really only a scientifically more informed version of the selection that goes on in any event. It’s not very interesting ethically.
But what if a gene for PTSD-resistance could be inserted or artificially switched on? It doesn’t seem fanciful. Should the military be permitted (or perhaps even required) to PTSD-proof their personnel? Continue reading
Today, if a gay couple wants to have a child, they have two main options: Either (1) they adopt a child or (2) they get an egg from a donor, have it fertilized in a laboratory, and have a surrogate mother carry and give birth to their child.
These are both good options. Imagine, however, that a certain gay couple – let us call them Albert and Mark – wants a child that genetically belongs to both of them. If they want this, then option (1) will not do the trick. Option (2) will be somewhat better, but the child will then carry genetic material from only one of the two.
This does not satisfy Albert and Mark.
Is their problem solvable? Can Albert and Mark have a child that, genetically, is truly theirs? The answer that first strikes one is no, since this seemingly requires technology beyond reach.
It is easily solvable, however, if we just think outside the box. The solution is that the egg fertilized by Albert’s sperm should come from Mark’s sister, or if still fertile, form Mark’s mother. This would not give a perfect genetic match, but a decent one – and it would be safe, affordable, and fully possible. Even legal, I assume, since it does not imply inbreeding.
Why should not gay couples do this? Or, for that matter: Why should not straight couples where one party is infertile?
In an interesting article, “Why we’re the best”, Oliver Poole writing in the Evening Standard yesterday claims:
Culture, environment and genes are all cited as reasons for sporting success. But it is practice that really makes perfect.
He cites evidence that it not some genetic advantage that makes Kenyan runners so great but the fact that they run barefoot from an early age. Usain Bolt? It is not that he is biologically very different – his brilliant performances are apparently due to eating yams.
It is a mistake to draw the conclusion that genetic factors are not important in sporting performance from the fact that science has not so far identified genetic contributors to sporting performance. Our understanding of our own biology is exponentially increasing but still limited. We don’t know what most genes do or even really why humans age. How much of a sporting performance is the result of innate talent, mental determination or training is difficult to say.
It’s certainly true to be a good high jumper you have to train a lot at high jump. But you also have to be tall. And how tall you can be is limited by your personal biology. It may be that elite athletes could come from any country in the world, if only they had the specialized training to bring out the potential of their gifted citizens. But one of the myths of elite sport that many of us cherish is that anyone could be the best, if only he or she tried hard enough. That, I believe, is sadly not true.
Sporting performance is likely to be mixture of innate biological capacity, training and mental application. The opportunity to be the best, or even self-supporting professional, is likely to be open to a small minority. This drives some to take dangerous performance enhancing drugs or give up or be a spectator.
If we were concerned about human well-being, we would shift our concern from elite sport to making sport a part of culture and everyday life, like tai chi. We have become a culture of elite sportspeople, investors in sport, and unhealthy spectators. Sport should be fun, good for you, the opportunity to develop talents and social. And most of all, something which is really open to all. Elite sport is not.
A great sporting performance is a beautiful and admirable thing. But it is better to be a player than a spectator, in sport and in life.
A new test, soon to become available to the general public in the UK, can tell people how fast they are aging, thereby allowing them to estimate their life expectancy. The test, which should be available for €500 (£435), is based on an analysis of the telomeres, small protective caps at the extremities of a person’s chromosomes. Short telomeres are associated with a shorter lifespan and indicate a more advanced biological age (by contrast with the person’s chronological age). The test has been described as opening an “ethical Pandora’s box”. Concerns have been raised regarding people’s possible reaction to information about how long they still have to live. Some are also worried that the test might be used by organizations selling dubious “anti-aging” remedies to attract potential customers, and that insurance companies might demand to have access to such information before providing cover, requiring people with shorter telomeres to pay higher premiums. Should the prospect of the public availability of such a test concern us, and should we try and restrict it?
In a recently released report the UK Human Genetics Commission said there are “no specific social, ethical or legal principles” against preconception screening. If a couple may benefit from it, testing should be available so they can make informed choices. Information about this kind of testing should also be made widely available in the health system (and in school). The responses in the news have been along predictable lines, with critics warning that this is a modern version of eugenics or that it would lead to some people being stigmatized.
Last month, doctors in France announced the arrival of the country’s first so-called ‘saviour sibling’. Born to parents of Turkish origin, Umut Talha (Turkish for ‘our hope’) was conceived through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This technique, in conjunction with Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing, commonly known as ‘tissue-typing’, has enabled families to have a child – a ‘saviour sibling’ – that is capable of donating life-saving tissue (usually umbilical cord material) to an existing sick sibling. Umut’s parents approached the hospital in Clamart a year ago requesting tissue-typing PGD. Their two existing children had beta thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder that requires monthly blood transfusions.
An embryo was screened and genetically selected from an original group of twelve embryos to ensure that it was both free of the disorder and a tissue match for one of the existing siblings. The resulting saviour sibling, Umut, did not have thalassaemia, and cells from his discarded umbilical cord will be used to cure his older sister, now aged two, and her monthly blood transfusions will be discontinued. Umut’s parents plan to return to Clamart to undergo the same procedure to cure their other child, Umut’s four-year-old brother.
Saviour sibling selection is nothing new. Continue reading
by Alexandre Erler
Satoshi Kanazawa is currently in the news – see e.g. these articles in the Daily Mail, The Australian and Psychology Today. An evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, Kanazawa has just published a new article in the journal Intelligence (Kanazawa 2011) in which he argues, in continuity with his previous research, that beautiful people tend to be more intelligent than plainer ones (especially if they are men). Only now he is arguing that this correlation may be much stronger than we previously thought. His conclusion is based on data from two studies, conducted respectively in the UK and the US, which tested the intelligence of children and young teenagers but also rated their level of physical attractiveness. In the British study, attractive respondents had a mean IQ about 13 points higher than unattractive ones, and the beauty-intelligence correlation turned out to be of a similar magnitude to that between intelligence and education.
The prestigious scientific journal, Nature, reports that Germans are poised to allow genetic testing of embryos for serious genetic disorders. This follows a recent judicial judgement that genetic testing of embryos for serious disorders did not fall under German laws that ban destruction of embryos. Now,
The Leopoldina, Germany’s national academy of sciences, has published a report strongly recommending that preimplantation genetic diagnosis of early embryos be allowed by law when couples know they carry genes that could cause a serious incurable disease if passed on to their children.
Australia essentially bans sex selection, except to prevent babies being born with serious sex-linked disorders. The National Health and Medical Research Councils also prohibits it in its guidelines.
A couple in the state of Victoria is currently appealing to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to allow them to access IVF and to deliberately have a girl. The couple have had three boys naturally and lost a daughter soon after birth. They recently had IVF which resulted in a twin pregnancy. The twins were boys. They aborted the pregnancy.
I argued over 10 years ago there are no good reasons to oppose sex selection in countries like Australia.