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Reproductive Technologies

In the genetic supermarket, should parents be allowed to buy?

Imagine a world in which genetic interventions (for hair/eye colour, health, strength, happiness, morality…) were tested, safe, effective and accepted. In this genetic supermarket, who should be allowed to buy – to decide how children should be modified? Parents seem the obvious choice – but on reflection, there seem few reasons to allow this.

Why is it good for people to make their own choices? Firstly, out of liberty: everyone should have the right to do what they want with themselves. Secondly, because people know their own preferences much better than anyone else (one of the reasons that the communist command economies failed). And thirdly because people can experience the consequences of their choices, and become more skilled consumers, driving poor products out of business.

None of these applies to parents choosing their children’s genes. Here they are making the choice for other people, whose preferences they don’t know (because they don’t even exist yet!). And unless parents plan to have ten or twenty children, they have no relevant personal experience to draw on for comparing genetic interventions. And the main effects of these interventions are very long term, making the parents even less suited to making the choice in an informed way.Read More »In the genetic supermarket, should parents be allowed to buy?

Three person IVF

It was announced yesterday that the government is moving towards allowing so-called three person IVF for the creation of embryos free of mitochondrial disease.

The mitochondria are tiny organelles in the body of the cell, concerned with important energy functions, and which contain a small amount of DNA. They are present in the egg, but not in the sperm, and are passed down the female line, more or less unchanged, from mothers to all her offspring, and then from daughters to grandchildren and so on. In some cases, women can suffer from various mitochondrial disorders, which they are at risk of then passing on to their children. These disorders may be relatively mild, but in perhaps 5 – 10 cases a year in the UK, babies will be born with very serious disease.

There are a couple of ways of doing the new procedures, but basically the new proposed techniques take the egg of an affected woman and remove the nuclear DNA (the vast majority of our DNA which goes to shape our basic features). A donated egg is also taken, its nuclear DNA removed, leaving behind the healthy mitochondrial DNA. The nuclear DNA of the affected woman is then transplanted into the body of the healthy egg, resulting in an egg which has the DNA of the affected woman, minus the tiny fraction of mitochondrial DNA concerned with cell energy functions.

The Department of Health has backed this procedure after the HFEA conducted public consultations earlier this year; the HFEA reported broad public support for the techniques.  The Chief Medical Officer is now urging the drafting of regulations to allow the procedure to be approved by Parliament as soon as possible. There are hopes that the first patients could be treated as soon as 2014.

Mitochondrial disease can be really severe and lead to great suffering and early death. So why would there be any doubts about the use of such techniques?

Read More »Three person IVF

Kyle Edwards: Methods of Legitimation: How Ethics Committees Decide Which Reasons Count (Podcast)

The most recent St. Cross Ethics Seminar took place on February 28th, 2013. Kyle Edwards, who is currently a DPhil Candidate at Oxford, led it. Her informative and compelling presentation was entitled “Methods of Legitimation: How Ethics Committees Decide Which Reasons Count.”

(A podcast of the seminar is located here:

Read More »Kyle Edwards: Methods of Legitimation: How Ethics Committees Decide Which Reasons Count (Podcast)

Too long in gestating: an overdue inquiry into the Abortion Act

Whatever your view of abortion, there are too many abortions, and too many of them are too late. Even abortion’s fiercest advocates don’t pretend that it’s a Good Thing – just the lesser of two evils.

In 2010 there were 189,574 abortions in England and Wales – an 8% increase in a decade. The tightly policed regime envisaged in 1967, when the Act became law, hasn’t existed for ages, if indeed it ever did. There is abortion on demand, whatever the statute book says.

1967 was a long time ago. There have been many medical advances and societal changes since then. It’s time to take stock of the Act.

That’s what a recently announced cross-party commission, to be chaired by Fiona Bruce MP, will do.

It will focus, rightly, on two issues: medical advances and attitudes to discrimination.Read More »Too long in gestating: an overdue inquiry into the Abortion Act

Where are my smart genes? Searching for intelligence in our DNA

Reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) mean it is currently possible for parents to create a range of embryos and make decisions about which to implant on the basis of their genetic makeup.  One interesting possibility is that we will soon be able to use such technologies to influence the intelligence of our future children. It is known that intelligence has at least a moderately important genetic component. Identical twins are significantly more similar in intelligence than dizygotic twins, who are in turn significantly more similar than adopted siblings raised together. In fact, a range of studies indicate that the heritability of intelligence is approximately 0.7, which is only slightly lower than the heritability of height. This means that 70% of the variation we observe in intelligence is due to genetic factors. Once we can identify the genes which explain this variation it will be relatively simple to test embryos for them, meaning it will be technically possible for parents to select embryos on the basis of their likely intelligence.

However scientists are finding it surprisingly difficult to locate the specific genes which affect intelligence. Read More »Where are my smart genes? Searching for intelligence in our DNA

Growing Babies: The Ethics of Artificial Wombs

Earlier this year, scientists published a study that detailed the successful use of an artificial uterus to bring shark embryos to term. Once ‘birthed’ the shark pups showed no detrimental effects as a result of having gone through development in an artificial setting.

Research such as this ignites interest in the possibility of creating artificial wombs for the purpose of human reproduction. After all – artificial hearts, kidneys and lungs are all available and becoming increasingly sophisticated. It is surely only a matter of time before artificial wombs, capable of growing and developing a foetus outside the human body, are technologically feasible.

This raises the question of whether we should promote research aimed at shifting the location of foetal development to outside the human body. As a way of approaching some of the issues surrounding this prospect let’s consider a hypothetical scenario.Read More »Growing Babies: The Ethics of Artificial Wombs

Do we want “genetically modified children”? Yes, of course!

The agency that regulates fertility treatment and embryo research in the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has asked for public views on two possible new forms of fertility treatment that promise to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial diseases to children. These diseases can be extremely severe, leading to (among other things) diabetes, deafness, progressive blindness, seizures, dementia, muscular dystrophy, and death.

Read More »Do we want “genetically modified children”? Yes, of course!

How not to save the world

By Charles Foster

Y chromosomes are on the way out, thinks Aarathi Prasad, a geneticist from Imperial College, London: they’re degenerating. If they go, then so do humans – unless an alternative method of reproduction can be devised. It can, says Prasad. In fact the basic technology is already here, and is bound to get better. In 2004 a mouse was conceived using synthetic sperm made by modifying ova. Technological virgin birth (I’ll call it TVB) might be the salvation of the human race.

This is all very interesting. But Prasad isn’t content merely to describe the science. She seems to think that we ought to drop all our taboos against the idea. ‘By all reasonable estimates, in the near future we will conquer the tyranny of the womb. The question remains if we can also conquer the tyranny of human prejudice….’

It’s not clear from this whether she is advising us to conquer our tyrannous prejudice on simply practical grounds –  (because, if we don’t overcome our squeamishness, we won’t develop or embrace the technology, so dooming humanity) or whether she thinks that there is something philosophically wrong with a distaste for TVB. I suspect the latter.

If this suspicion is right, why might she (or anyone else) think that?Read More »How not to save the world

Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: prolific sperm donation and screening

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?

Read More »Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: prolific sperm donation and screening

Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages

By Brian Earp

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Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages

Valentine’s day has passed, and along with it the usual rush of articles on “the neuroscience of love” – such as this one from Parade magazine. The penner of this particular piece, Judith Newman, sums up the relevant research like this:

It turns out that love truly is a chemical reaction. Researchers using MRIs to look at the brain activity of the smitten have found that an interplay of hormones and neurotransmitters create the state we call love.

My humble reckoning is that there’s more to “the state we call love” than hormones and neurotransmitters, but it’s true that brain chemistry is heavily involved in shaping our experience of amour. In fact, we’re beginning to understand quite a bit about the cerebral circuitry involved in love, lust, and human attachment—so much so that a couple of Oxford philosophers have been inspired to suggest something pretty radical.

They think that it’s time we shifted from merely describing this circuitry, and actually intervened in it directly—by altering our brains pharmacologically, through the use of what they call “love drugs.”

Read More »Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages